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The Circular Economy: Reducing Waste and Shortening the Supply Chain
By Lindsey Hoell, CEO and Co-Founder at Dispatch Goods
As a business operating in the logistics of reuse, one of the most common questions asked is “Is this really better, if you’re driving around and picking things up and delivering them? What about the carbon associated with transportation?”
Luckily, this is my absolute favorite question, because it gives me an opportunity to outline one of the most compelling cases for reuse and the circular economy: shortening the supply chain, thus reducing transportation-related carbon emissions.
Let’s first follow the supply chain of single-use plastics production, although a similar process exists for most material manufacturing. To begin, there is the raw material production phase, which ends in a plastic polymer that can be shipped to manufacturers. Currently 99% of plastic is sourced from oil, which has its own host of problems. The second phase is the manufacturing phase. Often, products are not manufactured in the same country as the polymer creation, so the polymer must be transported overseas. The third phase is the use of the product. As you can imagine, this often means the product will be traveling from a high volume manufacturing country, like China, to the country where the product will be used and disposed of, so there’s often another leg of overseas transportation. And lastly, the product meets its end-of-life destiny, which requires collection (often curbside), transportation to a waste management facility or MRF, and another journey to a landfill or recycling processing facility. Each leg has its own carbon footprint, although we often only think about the last third (the downstream effect) when it comes to the issues with single-use products.
Now, let’s compare this supply chain to that of reuse. For the initial product use, the first ⅔ of the supply chain logistics is identical to single-use. We still need to source raw materials and create polymers, manufacture products, and ship to the destination. Instead of the last ⅓, however, reuse systems mimic this process by creating a very similar one: collection and transportation to a reuse processing facility.
The second use (and beyond!) of the product is where things get fun and very compelling. Instead of the 8 step process you see above, there are generally two legs of the journey: collection and redistribution. Due to some logistics and economic reasons, the case for setting up local processing centers is appealing, thus making the supply chain incredibly short by comparison.
So when is the case for reuse not as strong? In our experience, it’s rarely due to the reuse supply chain footprint, but rather the raw material mining and manufacturing footprint. Some of the alternatives to lightweight plastics or compostables carry a hefty energy tag, meaning that a product needs to be used many times in order to breakeven from an energy perspective, so optimizing for carbon footprint when designing durable alternatives is key. On top of creating durable alternatives to single-use products, reusing the products that already exist should be seen as the absolute gold standard. Many single-use items made of polypropylene, polyethylene, various metals, and glass are fully reusable if processed correctly, and the energy required to reuse that product rather than create a new one (even a fully recycled version) is much higher than processing a product for reuse.
What does the future look like for the circular systems, and how can we reduce the carbon footprint even further? There are some important shifts that are already underway, and these will make the case for reuse even stronger. The first shift is a move toward lower carbon raw materials, such bio-based plastic polymers, and more durable compostables that can withstand 50+ uses. Additionally, we are looking forward to more accessible electric fleets for last mile and middle-mile transportation. And lastly, we desperately need a national (or global!) reuse infrastructure, similar to the recycling infrastructure, but with more localized processing. This is the piece that Dispatch Goods, the company I founded alongside Maia Tekle, have been building over the past few years: a collection, sorting, processing, and redistribution infrastructure for packaging that already exists and new durable packaging we are bringing to market. With these shifts, as well as the natural shift to automation in manufacturing, the economic and carbon case for reuse will become even stronger over time. Hopefully, these forces will help us make the planet a little less trashy.
🎙MCJ Podcast Throwback
Learn more about Dispatch Goods and this week’s Community Voices author, Lindsey Hoell, in this Startup Series episode.
✍️ The Draw-down
Join Nicole Kelner, our Artist-in-Resident, for a night of climate art on 6/14. Learn how to paint or draw your own version of her “Electrify Everything” piece. Register here.
📍 Get Local
This week’s local climate issue of note, brought to you by Climate Cabinet.
Colorado signed into law a suite of important climate legislation, including big investments in programs to electrify homes, buildings, and electric school buses; funds to clean up orphaned oil & gas wells and toxic air pollution in over-burdened communities; plans for "community geothermal," resilience microgrids - and more! States legislatures are writing the playbook for an equitable clean energy future. Support state climate leadership at ClimateSlate.com!
🔎 Fresh Takes
Each week, The Regenerates will surface a climate campaign or stories to be told—elevating why it works (or doesn't) from a communications and marketing lens.
Most people won’t ever get to experience the Northern Lights, summit Everest, or sail through Arctic glaciers in their lifetimes — but if you can bring that experience to them, you can inspire the kind of awe and wonder that turns into action. We talked with Academy Award-winning creative producer Kristina Reed about how experiential storytelling can meet people where they are, catalyze connection, and help move them past climate paralysis into action. Read more
🍿 The Leanback
Learn about Genecis this week with Pique Action’s mini-documentaries.
🎙My Climate Journey Podcast
This week Jason spoke with Stephan Nicoleau of FullCycle about their unique model for funding climate infrastructure projects. He also caught up with Alisha Fredriksson of Seabound about their carbon capture technology for the shipping industry.
👋 MCJ Meetups
MCJ London Meetup: The MCJ London community had such a blast getting together this week that they’ve already planned their next one for June 20. RSVP here.
To organize an MCJ meetup in your locale, DM Leone Baron in the MCJ member slack.
💥 NEW MCJ Team Members
Leone Baron is #g-london based and our first hire outside of the US! She is the former Community Lead at Low Carbon Business School (part of MadeFrom, a climate tech startup), an OnDeck Community Builders fellow and founder of Following the Footprints, a platform guiding consumer goods brands to reduce their impact. Leone will be focused on improving the MCJ end to end membership experience through strategic improvements such as tooling, programs, events and more.
Jenn Beening is #g-socal based. Jenn is the former head of social media and content at SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and has an academic background in conservation biology and environmental stewardship. Jenn will be focused on improving our content operations & our social strategy
👩💻 Climate Jobs
For more climate events, check out the #c-events channel in MCJ Slack.
“Carbon to Value Initiative Year 2 Kickoff” at Greentown Labs (Houston & Livestream, June 8)
“Where to now? Artists and climate change” at the Royal Academy of Art (London, July 12)
TechCrunch Sessions on Climate (Berkeley, June 14)
MCJ “Monthly Ideas Jam” (June 17) For those of you working on an idea or early-stage company in climate that you would like to get MCJ community feedback on.
“For ClimateTech Summit 2021” (Virtual, September 15-16)
Google’s “Geo for Good Summit” (Mountain View, CA + virtual, October 4-6)
💭If you have feedback or items you’d like to include, feel free to reach out.
🌳If you’d like to become an MCJ community member, apply today.
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