Circular Economy strategies to address the 9 planetary boundaries

Published on 2021-10-20


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Patricia Matzdorf is a Partnership and Project Manager in Innovation & Socio-Economic Change at WWF, Switzerland, where they support all of those who are trying to find solutions for the planet, helping them to increase their impact and their visibility.


Patricia, would you like to give us a brief introduction of yourself and your current role at WWF? 

My name is Patricia Matzdorf, and I am working at WWF. My background starts from development economics, so economics and business, and now I'm adding sustainability into my role. We basically treat topics like the planetary boundaries, new economic models, and also the kind of approaches that will help us globally -  but also Switzerland -  to get closer to a one-planet reality.

While I have colleagues in my team who work on the more systemic political side, I work on the bottom-up approaches. So, really trying to support all of those who are trying to find solutions for the planet, and try to support them to increase their impact and their visibility. I think that's probably quite briefly to what I do; I'm German Ghanaian and I've come actually from the development space and have now transitioned into sustainability. 

What does it mean, in practice, to support the bottom-up innovators of solutions for the one planet?

Essentially we believe we need action at every level. There are a lot of people with great ideas in many different sectors, and we're launching those who have started their projects. Sometimes it's really basic project management: how do I do our marketing? How do I do fundraising? Sometimes also learning about how I measure my impact to be able to support people with great projects, sharing economy models or producing reducing food waste opportunities.

We have created a structure called "The One Planet Lab". It's currently only Switzerland focused. We have fundamental pillars. One is knowledge. We give them access to knowledge. That could be on a theoretical basis: what is an ecological footprint? What are the planetary boundaries? What are the different strategies or goals for sustainability      
Then, we also give them access to practical knowledge, for example as I just mentioned fundraising and marketing.       
And then we have the networking pillar. We have different ways of networking, either community amongst each other. They learn from peers in the community. We have peer to peer events where people can ask questions or they can bring in their own expertise and they can exchange information and knowledge directly with somebody who's actually done an initiative. 

We also have more information events, so really getting access to different types of information very quickly. To a topic like the carbon market, getting a perspective from an academic, from a politician, from somebody who works in that business, you can have a quick update on relevant sustainability topics.       
This also gives the community access to different people in our group: we're a multi-stakeholder platform. We really want to try to make people get out of their green bubble or try to push them to get in contact with other stakeholders.

We also provide courses that are the leg between knowledge and networking pillars and visibility for the organizations. We try to push them on social media, and we try to link them up to different networks of organizations with whom we're working.       
So, these are the different kinds of offerings that we have for supporting those who are, we think, our projects that fit within our thematic focus. 

And did you open calls for them or did you reach them directly? What is the process for an innovator to get in contact with you?

We create a platform that partners with a lot of different organizations. For example, we partnered with Impact Hub in their circular economy transition program, they had an incubator and we then supported the incubator in launching or communicating their goals for the incubators. 

To be aware of what's available in terms of these types of offerings, one would have to be linked on our social media or be subscribed to our newsletter and that's where you get access to the most ultimate tools. Also, on our website you can access all of our courses and events: amongst others, are available courses for organizations that are relevant to the community or people who are launching projects.

So, the easiest way to be in contact with us is effectively on our website, on our social media, on our newsletter, or just writing to me or my colleague Ingrid, who's responsible for the Francophone section. I'm writing her an email and telling us about where are they at? What are they doing? And then we can see if there's a good match within our network.  

You wrote a report with PWC and you mentioned an estimation of billions of net material cost-saving opportunities at the European level. You also talk about some strategies to identify concrete opportunities in that direction of the business. Would you like to talk about it? 

The report was a great experience to package a lot of knowledge. I'll start with some of the key insights.       
What was really important for us to bring together was a more traditional business brand, such as PWC and then an environmental one, such as WWF, it was a kind of a coming together and trying to find the middle way. What was significant to us was to set the topic of the circular economy within the context of the planetary boundaries, because a lot of people are not very much aware of the nine planetary boundaries, which essentially ensure the stability of all ecosystems. 

A large section of the community not working in the sustainability space don't know that we have these large planetary boundaries of which four have effectively been breached. 

Namely, biosphere integrity: basically we're currently facing the sixth mass extinction if you just contextualize that the fifth mass extinction was that of the dinosaurs. So we're acquainted with a serious situation at this point, given that a lot of our ecosystems are dependent on all of our biodiversity. 

The second is land use, which has already changed due to extreme deforestation. 

The third is nitrogen and phosphorus surplus due to significant fertilization within our agricultural practices, leading to depletion of oxygen in our freshwater.

And last but not least, it's essentially the one we've all heard about: climate change

What we really wanted to do is make sure that people understood that the circular economy can be a vehicle to try and help to address this breaching of the nine planetary boundaries. We also wanted to show the opportunities that are related to the transition from a linear to a circular model. I think there's a common misconception linked to the circular economy, namely that the circular economy is only related to recycling. We wanted to take that one step further and show that there are many different strategies to go beyond recycling that are actually even more important than recycling itself. In fact, recycling is kind of on the lower step.

There are four strategies that we highlight, and the definition for the Ellen MacArthur foundation goes in this direction, but it's just a different way of positioning the circular strategies that are available. So, we tried to put together the sustainable development definition from the Brundtland Sustainable Development Report from 1987.       
These four strategies that we try to promote are: slowing resource loops, which is really about consuming less using a product longer, refurbishing, that is, repairing as long as possible, really trying to keep a product in that cycle then closing loops, which is the standard recycling post-consumer waste recycling, and then narrowing, which is what we see a lot in the current linear economies, and then regenerating, which is about leaving the environment in a better state than you came into it. 

We also wanted to highlight what are the challenges, but also the opportunities going forward for a circular economy, particularly with Swiss land, because we're obviously focusing on the Swiss market, but the challenges I think in most places are the same: negative rebound effects. 

I mentioned before that the common understanding of the circular economy is usually linked to recycling, but also on the common understanding is that a circular business model is inherently more sustainable, but effectively it's inherent and more sustainable if it's designed to be, so you always need to take into consideration the possible rebound effects of creating your product.       
You really need to design your circular economy model because it acts as a substitute for primary resource materials. It's a circular business that should create alternatives for the primary resource use and to decrease the overall demand and that's what we're truly trying to push as we want to. 

We're currently hitting a hundred billion tons of primary resource materials in 2018. So meaning that we now, as humanity, consume a hundred billion tons of primary materials every year. That means that we are consuming like we have three planets when we have one, and simple economics shows us that's just going to be a problem sooner rather than later. 

There's a whole series of different challenges: from energy usage to cost materials, but there are also some significant opportunities. I feel like there are also investments that are going into that space: there are circular economy roadmaps that are being instilled in or created for the European Union. There's a lot of interest now and I think there's a significant opportunity to push and change in a more circular direction.

In the Swiss industry not just startups but also big companies are changing. Do you have in mind a nice example that you would like to talk about?

Just starting with the food sector. We tried to focus on food waste in our report. In Switzerland, twenty-five per cent of the nutrition-related environmental impact is posed by avoidable food waste.

An average person per year will be throwing away 600 francs worth of food, which is 500 euros. Where you need to calculate 2.8 million tons of food waste annually. It's quite a significant amount. And most of that happens 38% in households, 27%  in processing, and about 15 or 14% of that in gastronomy. There's a real opportunity here to save all, not only on monetary value but also nutritional value. 

There's a couple of really good examples of different types of strategies on different startups.

One of them is Kitro. They have software that takes pictures of the food waste and then calculates what's being wasted and how much of that is being wasted. They work with cafeteria chefs to change the menu so that there is less food waste overall, seeing which food customers like least. 

Another one, which is now well-known across Europe is Too Good To Go. They're one of the largest B2C marketplaces for food waste or food surpluses. Essentially what they do is a partnership with bakeries and cafeterias all across different countries in Europe. They have created an app where you can buy unsold surplus food, right after peak food hours, like after traditional lunch hours, and at a very affordable price. Thereby they're saving a significant amount of food and they've also shown that there's still value. They're creating value from something you wouldn't see otherwise. 

I think the textile space is also one that's developing significantly: at this moment there's less than 1% of clothing that is recycled in the same or similar quality. Overall, we throw away over a hundred tons of textiles globally every year, and in Switzerland that's 50,000 tons. What we see is there is a 60% increase in production in the last 15 years, but a 40% decrease in usage. The clothes that are bought are only going to be worn two to four times overall.

So that just goes to show the scale of the problem that we're dealing with, but we found that there's a big interest, particularly in the fashion industry, to stop thinking of dealing around with this problem and to actually do something. Obviously, slowing loops is quite an important strategy here trying to make people use their clothes for longer. But designing in circularity from the very beginning, it's going to be very important.       
There's a European Research Bureau study that shows that 80% of the wasted can be designed out in that design phase. And what we're really happy to see, it's a very controversial example, but H&M has been working very closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is certainly a good place to start.      
But I think the hardest thing to answer is "how do we stop over-consumption and play in this space?"

Recycling clothes it's still a challenge because you still cannot recover the material without losing some quality?

Yes, the quality of the textile is no longer guaranteed, that's one of the challenges when you have mixed fibre textiles, you can break them back down into their separate components and therefore reuse them at the same quality as they were before. And essentially also in the recycling process, that issue of contamination is one of the challenges and one of the reasons why clothing and recycling loops are not the priority, because it's just so difficult, not only in terms of energy usage but in that contamination aspect of maintaining the quality of recycled goods.      
Particularly, there's European Research in which they stated that if we were able to extend the life cycle of old notebooks, washing machines and vacuum cleaners by just one year they would be saving 4 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. And that's the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the road until 2030. Just by increasing the usage of many different goods and products which need to be taken into consideration, particularly in the fashion industry.       
I, and I'm not quite sure how to do that, but I feel like there's a room for creative inspiration and saying: "Do we create modules jackets? Do we have pieces that can be repaired? Do we create a consortium of different outdoor labels that can repair each other's clothing? There's an opportunity for creating new ways of working together?.”

What is the initial cost of collaboration in the projects? How do you explain to companies the value of doing it? And how can it be overcome? 

You mentioned one of the key challenges currently for creating circular systems. Because it's very difficult for a business to be purely circular if it's not working with the right stakeholders who are ensuring the full circularity across the whole value chain now.

It's very different if you're starting with a circular idea or if you need to put it in. So, if you have a traditional linear model and you need to know how to rotate all of your supply chains across the globe, that's a very different case, but if you're starting small, then you actually have the opportunities to already source and develop partnerships with organizations that already have some of the circular environmental criteria or processes that you would like to have.

The coordination cost should be less. I think there's a real shift happening a little bit but we'll see the style of doing business of "I create my little project and I won't share it with anybody" starting to change. We are seeing a lot more partnerships between different companies who are saying "Okay. Well, this is not my area of expertise: I'm going to partner".  This is a problem we all have, "instead of paying for research and development, in all of our companies, separately, let's put our thoughts together and see whether we can combine our resources and find a joint solution for it." So I think that will be more and more the business of the future as we go forward. 

I think there are two wrong approaches and this is one of the points that we actually suggested in the paper, collaborating to address environmental hotspots will be a very important way of addressing some of the most detrimental environmental industries. For instance, in Switzerland, there's a report that outlines which are the most detrimental industries and where, in their supply chains, there is the most biodiversity loss or where is the most energy wastage or where is that most waste overall. 

There's a really great paper that was raised a couple of years ago "Different ways of collaborating or different collaborative models in the EU" that look at national, regional and local partnership styles. They're different collaboration types and some also look specifically only at sectors. There's already a lot of examples out there about how to facilitate or promote partnerships at different levels, and depending on which country you're in, I feel like there's a joint role. 

On the one hand, it might not be their daily business to go out and search to create a whole circular system, but a government might have an interest in making sure that all of their different sectors are to some degree starting to think in that direction. So, I feel like it's an opportunity for both sides to push a little bit, one bringing in regulation that makes it necessary for businesses to act differently, or to also invest in maybe national round tables, or local round tables, or regional round tables, depending on the country context, in which a certain collaboration makes sense.      
If you're talking about energy usage in a whole country, then you might want to get together the different energy players in a given context, but if you're talking about local agricultural producers for a city or a village and trying to increase that, that's a different type of scope. 

So you need to find the model that fits. There are a lot of foundations and also grant givers who would be interested in supporting collaborative initiatives or particularly in pre-competitive spaces.       
There are problems that affect either all of the companies or all of the organizations or all the stakeholders equally. And there's a joint interest to find a solution. That's where I think that's civil society, or maybe NGOs, can really reach out and try to create projects, which test new solutions, which encourage that multi-stakeholder collaboration and also bring in the different actors. There's a lot of opportunities in a lot of different ways of going about it.

I wouldn't be able to say what the cost is, but it is clear now that the coordination costs are there. But I feel like coordination costs are there at any point. If you're trying to look for a partner in a supply chain or you're going to have to learn how they work, how we work, what are your criteria? It's still part of the game. It was just trying to do it again differently

For SMEs and any innovators, what are the questions that you're trying to answer that could facilitate their way of doing business?

For me, the most important strategy is definitely slowing. It's linked essentially to extending lifestyle, good products slowing consumption, and longer-lasting products. And I think I mentioned how many primary resources are going into our economies every year, and this is basically what we need to work on: we need to reduce the overall amount of primary retainers that are going into our systems. So, if we can move ahead on the slowing effects, we'll have a much better chance.

Speaking about the circularity assessment and their design principles, we basically wrote this paper with strong support from professor Nancy Boken. She was a strong contributor, and this is based on one of her design suggestions that she'd actually written the paper for and tested with a large and a smaller clothing company.      

You have to ask yourself the question "Is my product designed to an extent? Am I extending the lifetime of my product? And if I am, how much am I reducing the new items that I'm producing". Just thinking about these two very simple questions can help you think. What's the end impact? Am I still just trying to sell more? Or am I trying to sell less?       
So this is for example in the sharing economy model: you're not trying to sell more, you're trying to sell the functionality. And that's what I think is a really interesting way of rethinking how you are doing business.      
Granted it'll depend on which industry you're working with. I mean, food: you can’t extend the life cycle but you can reduce wastage. 

There are some really interesting pieces there and I think there are also questions around system effects: Does your new product lead to a negative rebound effect? If you say "I'm going to start now with biological cotton for my new t-shirt." Where is it sourced from? Are you sourcing it from somewhere with very low water? And as a result, harm the community where you're sourcing that?      
So that should help a company or an organization: start asking the right questions for the design of their next product or service. 

About the author

Patricia Matzdorf

Partnership and Project Manager, Innovation and Socio-Economic Change at WWF Switzerland. Helping organisations, initiatives and businesses interested in testing and advancing resource-saving approaches to respect our planetary boundaries.