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Setting the Standard for Reusable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin

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In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, reuse gained traction. Back in 2019, Berkeley, California, for one, established an ordinance for restaurants to make the switch to reusable foodware. That includes utensils, plates, cups and even smaller items such as sauce containers.

Since then, other cities in the state — Arcata, Culver City, Fairfax, Palm Springs and San Anselmo — have adopted similar ordinances, according to a recent report from Upstream.

And in Seattle, there’s an effort to create a reuse network that includes stadiums, universities, restaurants and businesses in the region. The challenge: In order to make a reuse ecosystem work with such entities, all parties involved have to be on the same page.

“When you get into reuse, when you start talking about what it’s going to take to make reuse begin to take some of the market share from single use, you have to have logistics and a wash facility operation [established],” said Pat Kaufman, commercial program manager at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). “We don’t have that here yet.”

But they’re working on it, along with the Partnership to Reuse, Refill, Replace Single-Use Plastics (PR3), a public-private partnership housed at Resolve, an NGO with a mission to create innovative partnerships that lead to sustainable solutions to critical social, health and environmental challenges.

In order to make a reuse ecosystem work with such entities, all parties involved have to be on the same page.

PR3 is made up of experts from different industries — including a technologist, policy and law expert, marketing strategist and researchers — and is “crafting standards and blueprints for reuse infrastructure that can achieve a 2 percent savings of our remaining carbon budget.”

Amy Larkin and Claudette Juska, co-founders of PR3, previously worked together on transforming another global system, eliminating hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from refrigeration. Their actions led to HFCs being included in the Montreal Protocol, the landmark agreement that regulates the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone depleting substances.

After their HFC work, the two went their separate ways, with Larkin consulting with global NGOs and multinational corporations on plastic policy and reduction of plastic. She said she was repeatedly part of conversations where the need for reuse came to the surface as a solution.

So, she started asking herself these questions about reuse: Where will the reusable containers go? Who’s going to store them? Who’s going to wash them? Who’s going to monitor them? Who’s going to redeliver them? Who’s going to inventory them? Who’s going to make sure all this labor takes place in just conditions?

That’s when it struck her that she wanted to take on another type of system change. So, she called Juska.

The PR3 standards include a component about containers that addresses minimum use cycles, labeling requirements and design. Image via Shutterstock/Monstar Studio

Gaining support and vetting standards

After deciding to work together, Larkin and Juska reached out to Nicky Davies, executive director at Plastic Solutions Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors aimed at supporting the #breakfreefromplastic movement.

The fund gave them a three-year $1.1 million launch grant, which supported PR3’s standard writing and pilot testing. The first year was about figuring out the right partners. The second year was spent working with the partners on writing and vetting the standards. We’ll get to the third year later. In addition to the organizations already mentioned, PR3 founding partners, funders and advisors include Cisco, Nestle and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In the process of developing the standards, Larkin and Juska commissioned a preliminary life-cycle analysis comparing single-use plastic bottles with reusables.

“Using very conservative estimates, we found that reuse can save at least 50 percent of climate emissions,” Juska wrote via email following an interview for this story. “But, if standards are in place so that cities and companies can align and create more efficiencies, reuse can save up to 80 percent of climate emissions compared to single-use.” (For comparison, increasing recycled content only saves 15 percent or less, Juska noted.)

When they extrapolated this to see what would happen if 80 percent of food packaging is converted to reuse (bottles, cups, take-away food clam shells, etc.), they found reuse can reduce future carbon emissions by 9.5 to 15 gigatons between now and 2050, about 2 percent of the world’s climate budget, according to Juska.

If standards are in place so that cities and companies can align and create more efficiencies, reuse can save up to 80% of climate emissions compared to single-use.

The group also spoke with people who work at waste management companies, reuse service providers, consumer goods companies and restaurants for their insights about reuse.

“Early on, [we] realized that the standard needs to be broken into these components, because there’s all these different pieces to the system,” Juska said.

So, what has PR3 come up with to help guide cities and companies on their reuse journeys?

The organization’s Reusable Packaging System Design Standard for foodware — such as takeaway cups and food containers — and consumer goods such as bottled soda, jars of food, and personal care products currently includes eight parts, five of which are available for the public to view:

Collection points: requirements for staffed, automated and passive collection locations
Containers: minimum use cycles, labeling requirements, digital requirements, materials and container design
Digital: standardizing the data fields used by all ecosystem participants
Incentives
Labeling and education: visual and verbal requirements, labeling requirements for containers and collection points
Labor
Reverse logistics
Third-party washing, sanitization and handling of foodware: minimum requirements and recommendations for washing, sanitization and drying of foodware containers, as well as minimum requirements and recommendations for the hygienic handling processes for these containers during their collection and distribution

The partnership wants to eventually incorporate e-commerce packaging and secondary (or business-to-business) packaging into its standards. “But it will take some time to get to those,” Juska said.

PR3’s standards — focused on collection points that are part of a shared, interoperable reuse ecosystem, and not those of independent reuse systems — are still in progress and one of the most challenging components to finalize is related to labor, Larkin said.

“It’s the most complex,” said Larkin, noting that the other PR3 standard proposals are largely related to efficiency. “But how labor systems work … it’s people, it’s unions, it’s organized labor. It’s the fact that a lot of homeless people live off currently recycled bottles and we’re going to get rid of them. There will be some collateral, there will be some people who will lose income. And that’s clearly something we have to prioritize as part of the infrastructure grid.”

Larkin likened the potential transition away from plastic bottles to the need to close coal mines. “We do. And if you don’t prioritize training those coal miners, shame on you, shame on us,” she said. “It’s the same idea. It’s like, it doesn’t mean you don’t close the coal mines. It means that you prioritize the people.”

And in this case, prioritizing people looks like training people to work and make an income in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment.

Launching pilots

It’s time to revisit year three, which started in the final quarter of 2021. Year three is about rolling out pilots, one of which will be in Seattle.

A model for Reuse Seattle. Courtesy of Cascadia Consulting Group

The start of the Reuse Seattle pilot project is near, with r.Cup, which produces reusable cups for large venues along with a turnkey cup washing and logistics service, in partnership with the Washington Environmental Council to establish reusable cup programs at several local music venues in the city. PR3, SPU and the Washington Nightlife Music Association have also been helping put all the pieces of the partnership in place. The program has also been supported by Cascadia Consulting, a local Seattle-based consulting firm that manages SPU’s green business program.

According to SPU’s Kaufman, the city already has a mature system for recycling and compostable food packaging.

“Right now, we’re trying to shift our thinking from the traditional diversion program models to more of a materials management perspective,” Kaufman said, noting that the goal for Reuse Seattle from SPU’s perspective is to provide an environment where food service operations in the city — from big anchor institutions such as universities to a food and chips joint on the waterfront — can choose to easily transition to a reuse model and away from the single use.

To be sure, PR3 isn’t the only organization thinking about standards for reuse. In September, Consumers Beyond Waste, an initiative of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform, released a community paper that included guidelines for building a reuse city.

And with PR3 is in its third year, it still feels like early days, with standard components still being vetted and pilots gearing up for launch. But the team has a vision for the standards to be adopted by more cities, and to establish governing that will own the standards and keep evolving them as technology advances.

“Obviously, we’re gonna need to roll this into something more long term,” Juska said. “[This] was phase one of what’s going to be a long-term sustainable nonprofit, I think.”

[Continue the dialogue on how to build a circular economy with forward-thinking leaders at Circularity 22, taking place in Atlanta, GA, May 17-19.]

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Is Climate Tech the Hottest Corner of the VC Business in the 2020s?

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.

In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.

Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.

“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,'” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”

Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.

Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.

Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.

“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”

Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.

Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.

If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.

In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.

This excerpt has been updated since publication.

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Walmart Begins Search for Sustainable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin

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“We don’t have time to waste.” With this imperative tagline, American retail giant Walmart launched its Circular Connector this spring.

The goal: to accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable and circular packaging, creating a bridge between companies looking for packaging that has less impact on the environment and those with new solutions to offer.

Searching for sustainable packaging

That the world’s largest retail multinational is launching an online platform to encourage the circular economy of packaging — even while accounting for some form of greenwashing — is undoubtedly great news.

After all, it’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution and in general to any aspect related to the sustainability of products. And Walmart, the retail chain of over 10,000 stores around the world, is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

Hence the ambitious commitment that the multinational has set for itself by 2025: to achieve that 100 percent of packaging on its shelves would be either recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. And hence the rush to find solutions to reach the goals.

It’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution… And Walmart is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

The Circular Connector was therefore created as an online tool to connect packaging designers and manufacturers with companies in various sectors, from food to cosmetics, from fashion to toys. “Basically,” explains a statement on Walmart’s website, “it’s a platform to accelerate packaging innovation and implementation. We want to make it easier for suppliers and brands to find sustainable packaging solutions, thus enabling all of us to move faster toward waste reduction.”

How does the Circular Connector work?

The Circular Connector is accessed from the multinational company’s sustainability policy site, the Walmart Sustainability Hub. To participate, sustainable packaging manufacturers or designers must fill out a special questionnaire with a series of questions about the functions, materials and recyclability of the candidate packaging. Each proposal will then be reviewed according to Walmart’s packaging sustainability goals and, if compatible, will be posted on the site and made available to brands for possible supply contracts.

Reiterating, pragmatically, that they “don’t have time to waste,” the project leaders also made available the company’s Recycling Playbook, based on the two principles of recyclability established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Namely: 1. Is there, in practice, a system for large-scale recycling of this category of packaging that guarantees at least a 30 percent recycling rate for over 400 million people? 2. Do the packaging components fit into that system?

Walmart’s handbook also contains valuable guidance on materials, such as those that are difficult to recycle and therefore tend to be excluded from sorting: metallic films, multi-layer materials, PVC or PVDC, PETG in rigid plastic packaging, oxo-degradable plastics and colored PET.

“We need to work together to promote innovative solutions on a large scale,” states Walmart. “Companies with reusable, refillable, recyclable and other sustainable packaging solutions should therefore come forward. There are hundreds of brands striving to achieve their own packaging sustainability goals, just like Walmart, and the Circular Connector is one tool available to them in this journey.”

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Episode 317: Conversations About Circularity

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 1:03:05.

CONSIDERING CIRCULARITY (8:50)

Featuring a recap of interviews and stories from Circularity 22, held this week in Atlanta.

INTERVIEW: Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity and senior analyst for GreenBiz, reflects on hot topics and themes
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Planet vs. plastic: Three steps to solving the global plastics crisis (Featuring Keiran Smith, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Green Africa, on how to encourage decisions made at the local level.)
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: John Warner: How to do the materials economy right (Featuring John Warner, senior vice president and research fellow of Zymergen, on how green chemistry could enable the leap to a regenerative, circular economy … if we educated chemists.)
CHITCHAT: Textile recycling tech startup triumphs in Circularity 22’s Accelerate competition
AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO, Shelton Group (On the importance of shifting context; and what that disturbing baby wrapped in cellophane image teaches us about marketing circularity.)

FEATURE
More sustainable consumer goods (47:30)

Interview with new CEO Christy Slay of The Sustainability Consortium, about priorities, circularity and engaging nimble innovators.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Not My Problem” and “Let That Sink In”; ItsWatR: “Awakening Instrumental”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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