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The 6 Sustainable Packaging Trends We’ll Be Watching in 2022

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Last year was a reckoning for companies racing the clock to meet their 2025 sustainable packaging goals. In the U.S., states passed groundbreaking legislation to help repair the broken recycling system and to move companies faster on their commitments.

As David Allaway, a senior analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told GreenBiz, “It’s time to acknowledge that that we have waste problem. The recycling system is not delivering the environmental benefits it’s capable of, and in some cases is actually causing environmental harm — and all of these problems can be fixed with a shared responsibility approach.”

2021 also saw progress, even as the coronavirus continued disrupting supply chains and the recycling industry. The use of virgin plastic in packaging peaked after decades of growth among signatories to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Global Commitment. Reuse and refill approaches continue to grow, albeit slowly.

Will that momentum continue in 2022? Here are some trends to keep an eye on:

1. Extended producer responsibility

Long established in Canada and Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) finally reached the U.S. in 2021. Oregon and Maine passed laws requiring manufacturers to help fund the collection and processing of packaging, while other states such as New York, Washington and California came close.

We are buying products because we are being fooled by the labels to think that they are recyclable, biodegradable…

Maine and Oregon take different approaches, but both laws require companies that sell packaged goods in their states to join a producer responsibility organization (PRO), pay membership fees and report the quantity and types of packaged products they sell. Oregon’s law additionally requires the 25 largest producers to periodically evaluate and disclose the lifecycle environmental impacts of a fraction of their portfolio. Maine’s law goes into effect in mid-2024; Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.

Both states cover packaging material regardless of whether it’s recyclable. “That’s really important because it’s the non-recyclable stuff that’s creating some of the challenges for the recycling system,” said Allaway.

Oregon’s law will infuse badly needed cash, about $82 million a year, into the state’s recycling system, to help municipalities solve long-standing challenges. But as to whether it will incentivize companies to develop more environmentally friendly packaging, Allaway said, “There will be a price signal here, but we don’t think it’s going to be a very loud signal.”

California, New York, Vermont and Connecticut may move next in 2022. California legislators are “understanding just how far behind we really are, and they want to catch up,” said Heidi Sanborn, founding director of the National Stewardship Action Council and chair of California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling.

Meanwhile, globally, eight national governments in EMF’s Global Commitment set or are planning to implement EPR policies by 2025, including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Rwanda, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, France and Portugal, according to Lily Shepherd, program manager for the Global Commitment and strategic engagements in the New Plastics Economy at the foundation.

2. More laws to come like ‘Truth in Labeling’

California passed a groundbreaking Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials law last year. Similar legislation is being introduced in New Jersey, and Sanborn expects New York to follow suit.

“I think truth in labeling is the absolute crux of the issue as to contamination and the mess in our markets,” said Sanborn. “We are buying products because we are being fooled by the labels to think that they are recyclable, biodegradable…because there is no federal standard that has any sort of enforcement.”

Producers have two years to fix their labels in accordance with the new law, and what it defines as recyclable. California will audit what is coming into processing facilities and what is getting baled and shipped out.

Image via Unsplash/Sigmund

Other laws that may emerge in 2022 include recycled content mandates that establish minimum requirements for post-consumer recycled content in products, according to Terri Goldberg, executive director at the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association. New Jersey, for example, introduced a bill last year establishing recycled-content requirements for rigid plastic containers, glass containers, paper and plastic carryout bags, and plastic trash bags.

A national bottle bill is also being discussed as waste and recycling trade groups signal their support, Sanborn told GreenBiz.

3. Stepped up action to get toxics out of packaging

“The circular nature of the recycling economy may have the potential to introduce additional chemicals into products,” warned a recent EPA study after finding greater amounts of fragrances, flame retardants, solvents, biocides and dyes in products made from recycled materials.

Meanwhile, Washington, California and Maine joined the growing list of states passing legislation to ban or phase-out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food packaging (and other products). Nationally, a bipartisan bill was introduced that would ban PFAS from food containers.

As more retailers such as McDonald’s announced PFAS bans, new tools are emerging to guide them in making safer packaging choices. The Center for Environmental Health and Clean Production Action released a GreenScreen Certified Standard for Food Service Ware, providing a safety standard for disposable plates, bowls and other foodware to ensure that they don’t contain PFAS or thousands of other toxic chemicals.

“This new standard can really help retailers, manufacturers and formulators ensure the safety of alternatives when transitioning away from PFAS, phthalates or other chemicals of high concern,” said Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store campaign.

To further help companies understand good materials choices and avoid regrettable substitutions, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition launched a new Safe and Circular Materials Collaborative with ChemForward this year, Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue, told GreenBiz.

While PFAS have galvanized attention, they are the tip of the iceberg. Microplastics are emerging as another serious health concern, as they turn up everywhere, in our food, water and air — and even in the placenta of unborn babies. Consumer demands for safer packaging (and other consumer goods) will likely grow as scientists link these pollutants to harms from brain cancer to reduced fertility.

“There’s nothing about a circular economy that’s going to work if we continue to poison ourselves … over and over again,” Sanborn, noted bluntly.

4. A more holistic approach to packaging

Packaging stakeholders say they want to move the sustainable packaging conversation beyond more and better recycling, better single-use products, or the best material to use.

“The tragedy of what’s happening in this field is it’s all about recyclable to the exclusion of low impact,” noted Allaway. “It’s widely believed that if a package is recyclable or compostable, it is more sustainable.”

But that’s not always true. The Oregon DEQ evaluated the lifecycle assessment literature, comparing recyclable packaging to non-recyclable packaging and found that roughly half of the time, the recyclable package had lower lifecycle impacts than a non-recyclable package and about half the time the opposite was true. They got similar results comparing compostable to non-compostable packaging.

“If what we care about is the climate impacts of consumption, we need to look at [packaging] more holistically,” said Goldberg. The Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard, created by a new collaboration of food service companies and environmental NGOs called the Single-Use Material Decelerator will help on that front. The scorecard, currently in beta, is an online tool for evaluating the full suite of environmental and human health impacts of foodware and food packaging.

For Matt Prindiville, executive director at Upstream, a nonprofit focused on reuse and refill solutions, a more holistic approach means thinking about packaging not as a product, but as more of a service and designing reusable, refillable supply chains.

5. Slow, steady growth on reuse and refill

Reuse pioneers Algramo and Loop continued to expand in 2021. Algramo raised $8.5 million in a Series A round to help finance its expansion into Jakarta, New York, Mexico and London.

Carrefour, a French retailer, is one of nine companies partnering with Loop to offer an in-store version of its reusable container service. Courtesy of Loop.

Loop is also going strong, with in-store operations in the U.S., Canada, U.K., France and Japan. Its reusable container services are offered in top grocery stores in Japan, France and the U.K., and will be offered in Kroger, Walgreens and Burger King in the U.S. next year.

What’s more, in-store operations are scaling up, according to Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle. “At this point, our partners are not asking, do consumers care?” he said. “Now it’s about more stores and more products. It’s an exciting phase that we’re entering into.”

Refill strategies are advancing in the beer industry. In Ontario, for example, 85 percent of the beer sold is reuse refill. In the U.S., the Oregon Brewers Association has a refillable beer bottle program with the 12 largest microbreweries in Oregon, while Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle is introducing reusable beer cups.

Beyond those bright lights, however, progress is slow. Shepherd of EMF said that while the foundation saw a 50 percent increase in reuse pilots last year, the pilots are small-scale efforts in one or two markets, or one or two product lines. “It doesn’t look very ambitious,” she said. What’s more, the overall proportion of reusable packaging among Global Compact signatories remains extremely low, at less than 2 percent.

The biggest barrier “is a lack of vision,” said Prindiville. To accelerate progress, Upstream is releasing software next year that will enable food service companies to plug in the existing single use products that they’re procuring, get some baseline cost and environmental data on those products and compare them to reusable products.

Reuse and refill targets may be added into state EPR legislation to spur momentum, and the European Commission plans to unveil new reuse refill targets in April as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan, according to Prindiville. France already set a target to decrease single use plastic packaging by 20 percent by 2025, of which at least half must come from the reuse of packaging.

For Kate Daly, managing director at Closed Loop Partners, the reuse/refill future is all about interoperability, continued experimentation and collaboration. Closed Loop’s testing of four reusable cup systems across nine stores in California found a key concern is consumers encountering a different reuse system in each store they frequent.

Collective action among competitors is very much part of a strong future ahead of us.

Daly further noted, “There is no successful refill model without a very high recapture rate,” and that means continued work experimenting with programs that work for customers and retailers alike.

“Collective action among competitors is very much part of a strong future ahead of us,” she added. “[There’s also] the need for more transparency around data so that we can … all go in a direction that aligns with operational reality to retailers and preferences for customers.”

6. Accountability

2022 will be all about accountability, Goodrich of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition told GreenBiz. “I mean, we’re that much closer to 2025,” she noted, adding that Ubuntoo’s score card for benchmarking company progress on key metrics towards 2025 goals is a “brilliant” tool for facilitating action.

Szaky also wants to see the rubber hit the road. He said he’s observed only one company, Tesco, make the “painful” decision to stop selling certain packaging types with high impacts, even though it meant lost revenue.

“I still don’t see a fundamental shift away from the mantra of a corporate saying, ‘I will do sustainability actions if it benefits my bottom line right away,'” he said. “I haven’t seen [such] sacrifice-based sustainability decisions yet and those are the ones I’m watching for. That’s the magic that’s going to change our world.”

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Climate Change Remains Single Biggest Global Economic Threat

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Climate change risks continue to dominate the global economic threat register even as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, with fresh estimates suggesting the overall bill for last year’s natural disasters and weather-related catastrophes hit $280 billion worldwide.

In the latest annual risk assessment published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week, climate change and extreme weather feature heavily in the top threats to the global economy in the short, medium and long-term, while there are also growing concerns over the threat to livelihoods, mental health and social cohesion in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

However, despite the ongoing nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the continued threat from new variants, extreme weather is still listed as the greatest single threat facing the global economy over the next two years, with the failure of climate action sitting in third place. For the medium-term outlook over the the next five years, climate action failure climbs to top spot in the list of economic threats, just ahead of extreme weather.

In addition, climate and environmental threats loom large over WEF’s long-term risk outlook, with climate action failure, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, natural resource crises and human environmental damage making up the entire list of the top five risks facing the global economy over the next decade.

As companies recover from the pandemic, they are rightly sharpening their focus on organizational resilience and ESG credentials.

Commenting on WEF’s findings, Peter Giger, group chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group, emphasized that the climate crisis “remains the biggest long-term threat facing humanity,” and called for renewed action to decarbonize the global economy in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“Failure to act on climate change could shrink global GDP by one-sixth and the commitments taken at COP26 are still not enough to achieve the 1.5 [degrees Celsius] goal,” he warned. “It is not too late for governments and businesses to act on the risks they face and to drive an innovative, determined and inclusive transition that protects economies and people.”

WEF’s latest assessment comes as the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China in late 2019, enters its third year, with the Omicron variant and public health concerns continuing to cause major disruption to the global economy. WEF’s annual Davos Summit this month has once again been forced online and governments around the world are wrestling with how to manage pressure on health systems, minimize the risk of dangerous new variants and imropve access to vaccines, while returning their economies to a degree of normality.

Meanwhile, the global gas crisis — which has initially sparked by the restart of economic activity following the first wave of the pandemic — continues to push up energy prices, with WEF warning that the global recovery from COVID-19 would likely prove highly volatile and uneven over the next three years.

As a result, the new global risk assessment also highlights significant social threats to economic stability in 2022 and beyond, pointing in particular to the risks of livelihood crises, the erosion of social cohesion, further infectious disease threats, debt crises and mental health deterioration.

Carolina Klint, risk management leader for continental Europe at insurance broker Marsh, said the combination of major, interlinked environmental and social risks underscored the importance of companies bolstering their environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies so as to bolster their resilience and tap into new market opportunities. “As companies recover from the pandemic, they are rightly sharpening their focus on organizational resilience and ESG credentials,” she said.

The latest warnings come in WEF’s 17th annual assessment of the greatest threats facing the global economy, which has increasingly seen climate and environmental concerns dominate the concerns of leading economists and business leaders as the impacts from a warming planet have intensified.

The Global Risks Report 2022 was compiled by WEF in collaboration with its strategic partners Marsh McLennan, SK Group and Zurich Insurance Group, as well as advisers at the University of Oxford, the National University of Singapore and the University of Pennsylvania.

It follows a raft of major natural disasters and extreme weather events last year that killed almost 10,000 people in total, such as Hurricane Ida in the U.S., flash floods and extreme rainfall across central Europe, as well as wildfires that once again raged across Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia. Scientists this week concluded 2021 was one of the hottest years on record, with the last seven years the hottest seven year period in recorded history.

As a result, insurance giant Munich Re said 2021 proved to be the second-costliest for the global insurance sector, with natural disasters driving overall losses of $280 billion worldwide, of which just $120 billion was insured, according to its latest annual disaster losses report.

Although 2017 remains the costliest year on record, natural disasters in 2021 caused substantially higher losses than the previous two years, with well under half of these losses still uninsured.

Hurricane Ida, which ravaged parts of the U.S. south last year, proved to be the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2021, driving overall losses of $65 billion alone, while flash floods in Europe drove losses of $54 billion, with Germany in particular among the hardest hit, according to Munich Re.

Many of last year’s weather catastrophes fit in with the expected consequences of climate change, the insurance giant said.

Flood victims in Taman Sri Muda in Malaysia. Image via Shutterstock/Izwan Is

Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek, CEO of its reinsurance arm, stressed that greater loss preparedness and climate protection should therefore be a matter of urgency for the global economy.

“The images of natural disasters in 2021 are disturbing,” he said. “Climate research increasingly confirms that extreme weather has become more likely. Societies need to urgently adapt to increasing weather risks and make climate protection a priority. Insurers meet their responsibilities by covering a portion of the risks and losses. By applying risk-adequate premiums, they put a price on natural hazards, thereby encouraging carefully considered behavior to limit the losses.”

But Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geo scientist at Munich Re, who also heads up the firm’s Climate Solutions Unit, warned that adapting to increasing climate risks would be “a challenge.”

“The 2021 disaster statistics are striking because some of the extreme weather events are of the kind that are likely to become more frequent or more severe as a result of climate change,” he added. “Even though events cannot automatically be attributed to climate change, analysis of the changes over decades provides plausible indications of a connection with the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans.”

Climate research increasingly confirms that extreme weather has become more likely. Societies need to urgently adapt to increasing weather risks and make climate protection a priority.

With the world’s biggest economy, the USA, suffering the highest losses from natural disasters and weather events last year, the latest data suggests the impacts of climate change can prove a threat to richer countries and poorer nations alike.

That much is underscored by fresh data this week from U.S. federal agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which in its own assessment found that 688 people were killed in 20 major weather and climate disasters in the country last year.

In total, these events — which include droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms — cost the U.S. a total of $145 billion, with each disaster on its own costing more than $1 billion, NOAA said.

From floods to wildfires, unexpected freezing temperatures, droughts and heatwaves and even hurricanes, the growing physical threats posed by natural disasters to lives, livelihoods and economies lay bare the eye watering costs posed by events that are likely to intensify in the coming years due to climate change.

The data and risk warnings issued this week by leading economists and insurers should, once again, send alarm bells ringing in government offices and boardrooms worldwide, particularly given the seven warmest years on record all occurred in the past seven years.

Only through deep decarbonization to halve global emissions by 2030 can the world stand a chance of stopping these threats worsening. Yet despite the glaring evidence, growing warnings, and renewed commitments from global governments and businesses made at the COP26 Climate Summit just two months ago, the world remains a long way from delivering on its climate pledges.

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Scaling the Circular Economy Requires a Digital Revolution

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This article was originally published on Circle Economy.

Technology can be a tremendous force for good. When leveraged for the right purpose it can improve the state of the planet at an incredible rate.

Ivonne Bojoh, quoted above, is no stranger to working on pioneering technology. With a background in digital start-ups across Europe and Southeast Asia, she joined Amsterdam’s Circle Economy as Head of Digital. Her goal? To push the pedal on circular economy adoption across the globe, embedding digital tools in the process. In a space long dominated by consultancy, pushing the digital agenda across the circular economy landscape is indeed pioneering — and necessary. But we’re in a race against climate breakdown, and to beat it, we need your — everyone’s — help.

Circle Economy, an impact organization based in Amsterdam, wants to boost global circularity from its current 8.6 percent to 17 percent. A 17 percent circular world could, according to analysis, vastly reduce global resource consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent, thereby limiting warming to well-below 2 degrees. Integrating circular strategies into global systems — across businesses and national and local governments — will allow the world to transition away from the harmful linear economy practices that have dominated for years and led us down a destructive path. The current global focus on phasing out fossil fuels is — while incredibly important — is not enough to truly mitigate climate change.

And there is no question about it: climate breakdown is no longer knocking politely at our doors, it’s broken down the barricades and placed itself dominantly at the head of the table. To expel it, we need to scale the knowledge and best practices that we have in our holdalls to new heights. Circle Economy is well-positioned to drive this scale-up as it harbors 10 years worth of circular economy knowledge.

“From frameworks to methodologies, we know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to implementing circular change. All of this knowledge is being leveraged from one client to the next. By leveraging technology we can distribute knowledge, data insights and provide tooling anywhere, anytime and without limits,” said Bojoh.

Circle Economy is set to launch a new digital platform to accelerate the circular transitions for businesses, cities and nations around the world. And what does success look like? By the end of 2023, “we aim to have 300 businesses, 1,000 cities and 70 nations actively using the platform to gain insights, promote action and connect with each other and track their progress towards a circular economy.” The platform to drive this impact? Our latest launch is named after the Japanese term for “go for it”: Ganbatte. Because we have no time to lose.

Climate breakdown is no longer knocking politely at our doors, it’s broken down the barricades and placed itself dominantly at the head of the table.

The future is digital; the future is circular

The fourth industrial revolution has spurred technical breakthroughs and digitalization across sectors. With climate breakdown being the most pressing issue of our time, technology has importantly shaped the sustainability and climate mitigation agenda, from renewable energy power grids to carbon tracking technology, and so much more. This has created an exciting landscape where everything is becoming connected, software-based, data-generating and automated.

We must take advantage of this to make the most of Circle Economy’s 10 years of circular knowledge — a gold mine.

Circle Economy’s Circularity Gap Report work with nations, for example, has garnered rich findings to guide action. In Norway’s report, specific circular interventions across business and industry could increase Norway’s circularity from 2.4 percent to nearly 50 percent, and cut the country’s carbon footprint by 63 percent. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the analysis located context-specific action that could help the country reach its goal of a fully circular economy by 2050. In Prague, the local City Circle Scan led to the implementation of a large-scale biogas plant, city-wide consumer goods sharing services and a single-use plastic ban, as well as the eradication of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers from all 1650HA city-owned land.

Ultimately, Circle Economy has supported over 80 businesses, 30 cities and 20 nations. It also boasts the largest online repository of circular case studies demonstrating on-the-ground action, data structures for over 4,000 cities and a monitor tracking the number and range of jobs that form a circular economy. “It’s time to funnel this knowledge into a digital form so that it can reach thousands of more stakeholders,” Bojoh noted.

And now is a unique window of opportunity. Businesses, cities and nations around the world are looking to turn their COP26 promises, pledges and policies into action. What they need is a tool that can guide them toward best practices, based on on-the-ground knowledge and up-to-date data.

This is where Ganbatte comes in.

A digital platform can disseminate knowledge — fast — and amplify it

“We need to act now and share our knowledge–and fast. The best way to do this is to use a digital platform as an amplifier. It is an essential distribution platform for our hard-earned knowledge,” said Bojoh. The magic here lies in the sheer number of people a digital tool can reach.

With a digital platform that holds thousands of datasets from around the world, 1,000 cities could effectively search for, identify and implement circular solutions concurrently. Ganbatte will consist of three levels to support the implementation of an action-focused circular economy:

Explore: Set a baseline for circularity on the business, city or nation level.
Scan: Identify levers for change.
Act: See how to take effective action.

But time is not on our side and we need your help

In bringing Ganbatte to market, there are three challenges, Bojoh explained. “First: time is not on our side. We need to develop and launch powerful digital tools as soon as possible to ensure businesses, cities and nations have the opportunity to implement the recommended circular strategies. This is imperative in light of the climate targets that we must reach to protect our futures.”

Secondly, Ganbatte will offer case studies collected from around the world. “To ensure we can distribute the rich knowledge out there, we need everyone out there who has tried, succeeded or failed with any circular strategies to share their stories so others can learn from it,” Bojoh said.

And finally: funding. Ever since the Paris Agreement came into effect, climate tech investments have surged around the world, growing nearly five times from $6.6 billion in 2016 to over $32 billion in 2021. “We need to ride this wave,” Bojoh said. We are grateful for the support we have received from trusts and foundations, and continue to seek support for our multi-year roadmap.

We know that a global circular economy can mitigate the worst impacts of climate breakdown: our hurdle now is translating theory into action on a world-wide scale. Information needs to be accessible to all businesses, cities and nations — not just those that can afford it. Ganbatte can take us beyond a one-by-one approach that just scratches the surface of work to be done — driving us firmly onto the path toward a future-proof world.

Learn more about Circle Economy’s digital portfolio and data capabilities

Circle Economy’s digital tool collection is large — and growing. From measuring the number of circular jobs and skills that exist in countries, cities or sectors with the Circular Jobs Monitor, to an open-source online library — the largest in the world — of circular economy case studies in the Knowledge Hub to an online tool for businesses to measure circularity in the Circle Assessment Tool. We also drive the formation of data alliances which organize and increase access to data, as well as encourage cross-sectoral collaboration. Learn more on our digital page.

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What Downsizing Taught Me About the Circular Economy

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This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

The sale of your childhood home is an inevitable rite of passage for many adults, and it’s often preceded by the obligatory and exhausting task of taking responsibility for all of your stuff. Not just the items deemed worthy of moving between increasingly adult apartments, but the childhood art projects, stacks of yearbooks, questionable prom dresses and inherited heirlooms that have conveniently waited behind the rarely opened doors of childhood bedrooms.

I wasn’t surprised when my mom announced her plans to downsize and sell the home we moved into when I was 7 and my brother was 9. As an independent adult, it’s felt increasingly unreasonable for me to have a childhood bedroom within 10 miles of where I live, and for my single mother and her dog to remain in a home built for a family. So after the final holiday season in the home where I grew up, it was time to begin the belabored process of saying goodbye: not just to the space, but to the abundance of stuff.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

While that number would have previously sounded hyperbolic, I’ve touched, considered and intentionally dealt with every item that I own over the past month. At this point, it sounds about right.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

There is a stratification of stuff in many homes. On the surface, there are the items that we actively or passively interact with on a daily basis: what we use and what we see. The next layer is hidden in drawers and behind cabinets, used weekly, monthly or maybe once a year. Finally, there are the items squirreled away into some nook or cranny. Just as squirrels lose about 75 percent of the acorns they bury, so too do people and our belongings.

With a combination of hindsight, emotional distance and the pressing reality that everything must go, during the cleanout process I continually asked myself, “What was I thinking?”

A cassette tape of “A Night in Terror Tower,” from the R.L. Stine Goosebumps series and a staple of the Phipps family road trips of my childhood. Stacks of mix CDs, from the avoidant proclamations of high school affection to the dozens with Sharpie-scribbled titles such as “middle school party hits!” and “jamz.” A first-generation iPod mini with gray buttons that made me feel oh so cool on the school bus.

Sentimental? Certainly. But also collectively rendered functionally obsolete with today’s technology.

What was I thinking holding onto these items for so long that they no longer serve a purpose in my life?

For many that live comfortably above the poverty line, we have the option to avoid thinking about all of our stuff. The average U.S. home has tripled in size in the past 50 years and one out of every 10 Americans still rents an offsite storage unit, making it easier to avoid engaging with what we own.

But even when we are confronted with the task of decluttering and downsizing, anyone who has been through this process will agree: it’s exhausting. Balancing the emotional weight of each item, assessing the cost-benefit of economic potential and tactical burden of dealing with the “give” pile and managing the guilt of trashing items that could be recycled in a specific context, but finding the right place to do so would be untenable.

Success for the circular economy won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle 2 dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders.

There’s a reason Marie Kondo rose to prominence.

Throughout the process I couldn’t help but reflect on how it felt like a microcosm of the circular economy. Most of us have bigger fish to fry than tediously identifying the highest and best use of hundreds of thousands of items. We have deadlines, limited energy and a lack of expertise. Value is subjective. Sure, there are new tools and platforms to help enable the decluttering process, but many are still limited in scope and in scale.

I have a new, visceral perspective on why the UL zero waste to landfill certification requires more than 90 percent diversion and not 100 percent. A surfeit of existing stuff not designed for its next life, paired with a lack of recovery infrastructure, means that perfection is unattainable.

The process has reminded me why we focus on systems change and not individual actions. The path to a circular economy isn’t built on each family making hard choices when they downsize. Success won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle two dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders. What’s most important is to consider impact and scale; to design better products and systems for future homes to one day manage with greater ease; and to consider changing individual relationships to consumption in the first place.

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