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Waste Not
Does Waste Have an Image Problem?

For circularity to become mainstream, where nothing is wasted and everything is fed back into the system, it requires businesses to find value in resources already in circulation — and reframe how they perceive waste in the first place.

The world is overflowing with waste. In fact, according to The World Bank, two billion tonnes of waste are generated annually; and without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70 percent on current levels by 2050.

These global statistics are sometimes hard to connect to — so large, they can appear incomprehensible. However, the truth is that we are confronted with waste daily; whether it’s the food in our fridge, or the inventory losses in our supply chain — its prevalence cannot be ignored. In France, a social media campaign that began last month with an anonymous user uploading images of the trash left in public places across Paris, alongside the hashtag #SaccageParis (“#TrashParis”) has now gone viral. Staggering photos of Parisian streets overflowing with garbage, food waste and abandoned cars have captured the world’s attention far beyond France.

One of the long-term trends accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic is the shift to ecommerce. In February 2021, it was forecast that 52.1 percent of China’s retail sales will come from ecommerce in 2021, up from 44.8 percent a year prior. That means that for the first time anywhere, a majority of retail sales for an entire country will be transacted online. With this phenomenon comes even more waste. Already, containers and packaging make up 28 percent of the waste that ends up in US landfills, according to the EPA; and in December 2020, an estimated three billion packages were shipped for Christmas in the US — up 800 million from the year prior.

This all paints an overwhelming picture, and one in which it’s hard to conclude anything other than “waste is bad.” However, this binary thinking stops us looking at the bigger picture. For circularity to become mainstream, where nothing is wasted and everything is fed back into the system, it requires businesses to find value in resources already in circulation — and reframe how they perceive waste in the first place. We must ask, “what is waste?” And “what do we consider valuable?”

Waste is valuable

Waste is thought of as something that nobody wants or can use — it is there to be discarded. However, waste should be viewed not as useless, but as something that can be harnessed as a resource. Landfills, for instance, are brimming with precious minerals within discarded electronics. Researchers have found there is more gold, palladium and silver within landfills and sewers than in natural ores in the ground.

Plastic waste also presents an opportunity. There is almost too much plastic in the world to recycle within the existing available infrastructure. Spanish clothing brand Ecoalf views plastic waste as a material. The brand works with fishermen worldwide who collect plastic while trawling for fish in the ocean. This ocean plastic waste is then processed into a new polymer yarn used in Ecoalf’s clothing.

The apparel industry wastes an estimated 15-20 percent of fabric during production; but recycling fabric from the cutting room floor is another way to reintroduce waste into the supply chain. Avery Dennison’s Albert Yarn is produced from the loom waste created during label production and can be GRS (Global Recycled Standard) Certified. This gathered waste is then recycled into a 100 percent polyester fabric, a raw material that can be used to create new labels.

Digital ID technology is also breathing new life into waste by enabling returnable loops and ensuring products stay within the circular system. CupClub, for instance, works with high street coffee chains to offer returnable, reusable, recyclable polypropylene coffee cups. The cups are equipped with intelligent labels, allowing the company to follow them along their journey from retailer to consumer and back again.

adidas has integrated Avery Dennison’s atma.io connected product cloud into its Infinite Play initiative to scale its ability to buy back products and give them a second life. The program tags every adidas item with a unique digital identity and allows owners of the brand’s clothes, footwear and accessories to return them to the company — where they can be repaired and sold again, or recycled if beyond repair.

This reimagining and reintroduction of “waste” into the supply chain is just one of the key trends outlined in our new report, Zero Waste Futures. The free report highlights three ‘futures’ scenarios around biomimetic materials, lifecycle visibility, and circular ecosystems.

Waste is only waste if you waste it

The sheer scale of global waste has created a sense of urgency as governments, businesses and consumers alike recognise we cannot continue to dispose of stuff at will without consequences. Creating a world where waste is both lessened and prevented will require different approaches and cross-sector collaboration.

The one thing that is clear is that we cannot ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ our way out of this problem. Our approach to waste needs a seismic overhaul and it begins with a fundamental shift in mindset — we must stop thinking of waste or trash as something we don’t need. As Ecoalf founder Javier Goyenach says, “Waste is only waste if you waste it.”

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