Building the Circular Economy: A Q&A with Kate Daly

A zero waste leader shares her thoughts on to-go cups, fast fashion, and monstrous hybrids.

Kate Daly, a white-skinned woman with short black hair speaks on stage. On screen behind her is a stack of red plastic cups.
Photo by Emily Cooper, courtesy Metro Vancouver

Kate Daly speaks about the Center for the Circular Economy at Vancouver’s Zero Waste Conference, in November 2018.

In early November, Vancouver’s Zero Waste Conference drew designers, futurists, entrepreneurs, planners, and policy-makers from around the world, to discuss how to move toward an industrial system in which items we throw away are remade into new goods — what’s known as the circular economy.

Kate Daly is the executive director of New York’s Center for the Circular Economy. Housed at Closed Loop Partners — an impact investment firm focused on circular economy projects — the center links entrepreneurs, academics, industry, and government to advance its zero-waste goals. Asparagus’ Alia Dharssi sat down with Daly at the conference to talk about the center’s work, and how moving toward a more sustainable society requires a significant rethink of how we design and consume goods. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Alia Dharssi: Can you tell me about the Center for the Circular Economy and what you’re working on?
Kate Daly: The center is positioned to serve as a hub to foster partnership and collaboration for the circular economy. We serve as a landing pad for companies that are coming to New York and to the US to expand their market. And we also host precompetitive collaborations, bringing together companies who are normally competitors, but who have a shared interest in changing the supply chain to improve recycling and circularity of their products.

One of our biggest projects is the NextGen Consortium, a partnership with Starbucks and McDonald’s to identify recyclable and compostable solutions for food packaging. Our first initiative is the NextGen Cup, which involves an innovation challenge to reinvent the to-go up, and an accelerator to advance the solutions that are identified.

It’s only through collaboration and partnership that we’ll be able to move the needle.

We also run a project called Connect Fashion, where we’re working with multiple apparel brands to use the internet of things to create a standardized global framework for metadata about clothing. Then, later in life, when apparel reaches the collection, sortation, and recycling stage, we’ll be in a better position to identify the material composition of each article of clothing, where it came from, and where it should go in the next stage of its journey. It’s only through collaboration and partnership that we’ll be able to move the needle on circularity, so we serve as a neutral third-party convener to bring together competitors to address some of the big challenges.

During a panel discussion, you said we need to shift how we think about materials and design to move beyond the “take-make-dispose” model. How do businesses need to think about design differently to move toward a circular economy?
Across any industry, the question is often the same: what happens when a product is at its end of life? It’s a very straightforward question. Yet most designers and manufacturers have never visited a material recovery facility, a composting facility, a landfill. They have no idea what happens to their products.

As [architect and designer] Bill McDonough said in his famous book Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things, we’re creating “monstrous hybrids.” These materials are difficult to reuse, but we make them all the time for the purpose of achieving design goals. But I think that, at that moment of design, you can choose an alternative path that doesn’t lead to a monstrous hybrid, but to something that could be disassembled in the future, that is designed in a way where you are thinking about its continued or second life.

Most designers and manufacturers have never visited a material recovery facility, a composting facility, a landfill. They have no idea what happens to their products.

One of the speakers at the conference brought up the example of Tetra Paks, which are difficult to recycle because of the way they attach plastic, aluminum, and paper. What other monstrous hybrids do we see in our daily lives?
They’re anything — like this 50/50 poly-cotton tablecloth [on the table in front of us]. This can’t be recycled as polyester and this can’t be recycled as cotton. If this were 100% cotton, it could be shredded mechanically and used for car wash rags or even potentially for insulation. But because it’s a hybrid material, it makes it difficult for it to go down either path, and it’s a question what will happen to it at end of life.

This table is made of different types of plastics that are glued together with an adhesive and then attached to metal. Almost anywhere in the world, a table like this will go to a landfill as soon as it starts to fail. That’s because there isn’t an easy mechanism for disassembling this adhesive, or even identifying what type of plastic this is and what waste stream it goes into.

It’s inspiring to hear about start-ups creating technologies for the circular economy, but what about all the things we’ve already developed? Only 9% of plastic ever thrown away has been recycled. How does that fit into this circular economy vision?
We need to have a better management of the materials already in circulation, and we need to turn off the tap of problematic materials. One of the big challenges is: how do you sort that material so that it’s properly managed? That is a problem that’s already being solved in diverse ways, and we’re seeing new technologies emerging to help with that sortation.

At the same time, I think we’re going to see a lot of incineration, which is the antithesis of retaining value in materials and using them for new life. That’s how people are dealing with the volume of discarded clothing that’s in the market today, but incineration does not promote circularity.

In the automobile industry, there’s leasing, resale, the circulation of used auto parts in new cars, without it being considered something radical.

The idea of a circular economy is great for the environment, but it seems like many businesses are more concerned about cost and short-term performance targets. How do you make the business case for circularity in your day-to-day work?
I think it’s great if companies want to invest in circularity because it’s good for the environment, but, in general, a company invests in circularity because it’s good for their business, it introduces efficiency, and it opens up new opportunities for revenue. A great example is the remanufacturing work that’s done in the automotive industry. No one thinks twice about buying a used car.

With other products, it’s as if we’re in the early days of persuading people that it’s acceptable; whereas in the automobile industry, there’s leasing, there’s resale, there’s the rehabilitation and circulation of used auto parts in new cars, without it being considered something radical. That’s all because it’s driven by the bottom line of cost-efficiency and manufacturing efficiency. I think that’s a great example that we can use as a model for other sectors.

That’s such an interesting example, because normally we don’t think of cars as holding lessons for how to be sustainable.
Exactly. You can also look at inkjet printers and think back to Xerox copiers. The sharing economy, in which we borrow and rent collaboratively rather than buy individually, is an important part of the circular economy. Xerox copiers were part of a collaborative consumption model before anybody had even invented that phrase. You have a large, expensive piece of equipment, so you have a product-as-service model. You provide the service of sharing that machinery, and you maintain it.

And then, when it’s done with its life at a particular company or professional setting, you bring it back to your company, you harvest it for parts or you repair it, and then you reuse it as needed. Sometimes we forget to look back to successful examples that illustrate the principles circularity is seeking to achieve.

Articles of clothing are, on average, worn only seven times before they’re thrown out.

To wrap up, could you tell me what solutions you’re most excited about?
The more we transition to collaborative consumption, the more hope I have that maybe we can end this cycle of purchase, use, and dispose. For example, articles of clothing are, on average, worn only seven times before they’re thrown out. We could transition to a rental model for high-demand materials like that. If we can address goods that people cycle through very quickly, like fast fashion and fast furniture, and allow for that cycling to take place within a business model that anticipates it, I think that’s where we have some hope.

For me, it’s very challenging to see how we’re going to have [individual] behavior-change be the driver. When you look at the three Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle, I think the first R should be “reject.” In the United States, that’s a very difficult principle to ask people to apply to their daily lives. So that’s where I think it’s incumbent upon emerging business models and corporations to identify a better path. As consumers, we’re all downstream of what they produce, and there’s only so much control we can have on that.

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