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The circular economy provides a framework
to solve the plastic problem.
Business can take the lead

In 2018, as the recipient of an Eisenhower Fellowship, Matt Kopac spent five weeks traveling in South America and Europe. During that time, he met with leaders in government and business, as well as leaders at universities and nonprofits, discussing, as he puts it, “the future of our economy.” When he returned home, he told his fellow members of the Rotary Club of Durham, North Carolina, what he had learned.

“We take a lot for granted,” he explained in a July 2018 presentation to his club. “We imagine that the economy we have is the one we were always meant to have, and the one that we will always have. As in prior eras, we have difficulty perceiving when we are amidst great changes.”

One of those changes was the potential shift from the wasteful linear economy of the last 200 or so years to the more sustainable circular economy he had encountered during his travels. A feature of the latter was its approach to plastic, which was once celebrated for its disposability. “Collecting and reusing consumer plastic waste is a circular practice,” he said.

Kopac got into the details of the circular economy during a recent interview with senior staff writer Diana Schoberg. “It’s just a different way of thinking about material use, a different way of thinking about our economy,” he says. Furthermore, this new approach helps delineate the “role businesses can play proactively to create a better world.”

The sustainable business and innovation manager for Burt’s Bees (a natural health and beauty care business), Kopac received his BA from the University of Wisconsin and his MBA from the Yale School of Management. From 2001 to 2003, he was a small-enterprise development volunteer for the Peace Corps; among other endeavors, he provided support for women’s cooperatives in the African country of Benin. In 2009, as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in El Salvador, he worked with a nonprofit making low-cost eyeglasses and saw firsthand how market-driven solutions can solve problems and create jobs. “It influenced me to think about this intersection of environmental justice, social justice, and business markets,” he says.

Since then, Kopac has refined his ideas, as Schoberg learned during their conversation. 


THE ROTARIAN: What do you mean by the circular economy?

KOPAC: It’s helpful to start by talking about our current economy, which we’ve had in place pretty much since the Industrial Revolution. It can be called the linear economy. That’s one where we cut stuff down and dig stuff up, use it once or twice, and then throw it away. Then we repeat that whole cycle. It’s an expectation that all this waste is inherent and necessary.

The circular economy is a framework in which we actively design waste out and keep materials in the loop. We keep using them over and over. Throughout that process, we can create jobs and protect the environment as we manage our economy and grow.

An example is with building construction. The way we tend to construct a building is to adhere together a wide variety of materials with an assumption that when we’re done using the building, we will knock it down and bury all the construction waste in the ground. Then we’ll go and dig up and cut down new materials to make a new building. In a circular framework, you would design the building so that when you’re done with its current use, you can either reconfigure it or take it apart entirely and use all the materials to make a new building. It’s almost like Legos or Lincoln Logs, where you can reassemble and reuse those materials. You design out the waste completely.

  • 30.00%

    Share of plastics ever produced that are currently in use

  • 110000.00

    Microplastic particles that the average American adult ingests every year

  • 450.00 years

    Estimated time it will take a plastic bottle to break down

  • 81.00%

    Share of tap water around the world that is contaminated with microplastics

TR: Is there a clear link between reducing plastics and the circular economy?

KOPAC: Absolutely. Go back 65 years, to August 1955, when Life magazine ran a story called “Throwaway Living.” There was a picture of a smiling family throwing a bunch of common, day-to-day items up into the air. The story was celebrating the convenience that came from disposability where you didn’t have to wash your dishes. At that time, there was this idea that you could simply throw things away after you had used them once. As if there were this place called “away” that would never come back around to confront you again. The movement toward single-use plastics for pretty much everything was the ultimate luxury.

What we’ve learned in the subsequent decades, particularly in the past five to 10 years, is that there is no “away” and that these materials do come back to us. Microplastics are littering the oceans around the world; they’re in the air and in our food. The average person ingests up to 5 grams of plastic a week, about a credit card’s worth. It’s everywhere.

That’s the result of the linear economy. But what does it look like when you put this in the framework of circularity? First of all, you need to design containers to be reused to the greatest extent possible. So that’s going back to the old milkman idea. You get your glass milk bottle that’s refilled, rather than going to the store and buying a milk jug or one of those cartons of milk that’s thrown away when you’re done.

If you can’t reuse it, you make sure that everything is recyclable. You avoid the sorts of components — the parts and packaging — that you can’t do anything else with or that gum up the recycling systems. You design materials that can be collected, ground down, and made into something else. You invest in infrastructure. And then you use the reclaimed materials to make the next thing and then repeat. You ultimately reduce or eliminate what’s called leakage — those materials that end up out in the environment or landfill but wouldn’t have to be there if you designed them differently in the first place.

TR: How did we wind up with a linear economy to begin with?

KOPAC: The benefits of the linear economy existed when we assumed that the only costs or expenses that go into making something or doing something are those that are reflected on balance sheets. We assumed that things like clean air, clean water, and renewable resources either didn’t have value or would be infinitely available. And so those things were seen as being very, very cheap. We’ve reached a point where we understand that these other things do have value in our lives, and that there are ways for us to be able to grow and support our livelihoods and create wealth without the assumption that waste is inevitable.

  • 15.00minutes

    Average time a single-use plastic bag is used

  • 9.00%

    Share of the 4 million tons of plastic bags produced in the U.S. each year that are recycled

  • 32.00%

    Share of plastic waste generated in coastal regions that is littered or improperly discarded

  • 5.00 of 15

    Number of top global retailers that have signed on to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment

TR: Why is it in the interest of businesses to convert to a circular economy?

KOPAC: There are a variety of reasons. One, wasting less can be financially better for businesses. A second is that businesses need to ensure that they have continued access to raw materials and resources that are necessary for the products or services they provide. Another is that climate change and other challenges can undermine the ability of businesses and people to thrive.

In addition, you have a lot of people who work in businesses who care about the world and about the people in it — and their consumer base does too. That provides a great business opportunity for those who are able to lead and make the change to give people what they’re asking for.

TR: What opportunities will there be for new entrepreneurs as the circular economy comes into being?

KOPAC: The opportunities will be unprecedented. There are going to be massive opportunities for entrepreneurs and for bigger businesses to position themselves for success in the future. Anytime you see disruption, you see innovation. It’s an opportunity for new entrants to come in, to innovate, and to succeed.

If we go back to buildings, it could be the development of new materials that are healthier for people and that are demanded and used in construction. There will be opportunities for people who are laborers in the construction and deconstruction of buildings to harvest materials. In the new energy economy, renewable energy generates way more jobs than fossil fuel energy — and that includes entrepreneurs who are coming up with micro-level technologies and solutions.

TR: So the circular economy wouldn’t be a job killer but a job creator?

KOPAC: One study shows nearly $2 trillion added to the European economy by this shift. There are huge opportunities with this transition, and yet there are definitely going to be opponents to it. They may want to shift, but it’s difficult because it can require some massive reinvestment to transition to a new way of operating. So you will see resistance, but that resistance is often just a way of protecting the status quo rather than supporting a healthier and more successful economy.

TR: Did you see the circular economy in action during your Eisenhower Fellowship?

KOPAC: I did my fellowship in the Netherlands and Brazil. There are a lot of exciting things happening in Brazil, but it’s clear that the Netherlands and some of the surrounding countries are the global leaders. It’s part of the national economic strategy of the Dutch to promote the circular economy. The Dutch have public policy and an economy that are friendly to entrepreneurs and support them as they grow new ideas. Good public policy creates the framework within which innovation happens. When I was in the Netherlands, I saw an entire commercial district that was built knowing that there’s a master plan to use the area for a different purpose within 10 years. The buildings were all built to be deconstructed so they could be moved elsewhere. It allows them to be really flexible and adaptive. That’s one example.

TR: Many Rotarians are business owners. What could they or other business owners do to be a part of this transition?

KOPAC: First, they can assess their own business practices to understand their impact. They can look upstream and think about the impact of the materials they are buying. Then think downstream about what happens when whatever is left over goes “away.” With that understanding, they can make improvements to their own practices and to the practices of any partners or suppliers that they work with. There are a variety of consultants and resources online that can help.

The results might not necessarily be what they think they will be. For example, there definitely is a cost to plastic ending up in the environment, and we have to do everything we can to stop that from happening. But in reality, one of the biggest environmental impacts of plastics is in the extraction of fossil fuels and their conversion into plastic. That takes an enormous amount of energy and results in a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

You don’t know that unless you do a life-cycle assessment. It highlights, for example, that when you use materials that are reclaimed — and use them again — you do away with that early phase of extraction and conversion. All of a sudden you have dramatically improved your impact on the environment. But it starts with understanding and then setting goals for improvement.

“There are some materials that just don’t break down as well as they need to in order to make the composting process efficient and profitable. It’s another indication that there aren’t necessarily simple answers.”

TR: What about plastics that are made of cellulose or other sorts of renewable materials?

KOPAC: Unfortunately, nothing is easy. There is a lot of exciting innovation happening to make plastic using plant material instead of fossil fuels. The result is still, for example, a clear plastic bottle, but it’s made from plants. So that eliminates that upstream issue. But you need to be careful about where the plants come from and the processes used to grow and harvest them. And you can still have the issue downstream of that plastic becoming litter. There are different types of plant-based plastics or bioplastics, some of which would break down in the environment. So one idea is if everything could just break down in the environment, then it wouldn’t matter if we have plastic in the ocean because it will eventually just dissolve. In reality, it doesn’t always work that way. There are some problems with biodegradability. Plant-based plastic would be an improvement. But there are other factors you have to consider in order to know if you’re actually making a better choice.

TR: In Milwaukee, where I live, we participate in a municipal composting program. Recently they stopped letting us compost the plant-based plastic bags we used for collecting food scraps and the plant-based plastic cups and utensils we used when we hosted birthday parties. We were advised to use paper instead.

KOPAC: There are some materials that just don’t break down as well as they need to in order to make the composting process efficient and profitable. It’s another indication that there aren’t necessarily simple answers. Right now, there’s a big global pushback against plastic. People are really concerned about it. But if we all switch to paper bags, would that be better? The reality is that the paper could be worse, because it can lead to deforestation, which can damage people’s livelihoods and the environment.

TR: This is getting terribly complicated.

KOPAC: There aren’t always easy answers. That creates a challenge — and that’s why you have to evaluate these questions carefully. It’s a fine balance between making sure we’re being rigorous and science based, and not having complete decision paralysis. We need businesses to lead. And we need public policy to set the parameters for innovation, so that we make the better choice the default option rather than making it so people have to make this sort of decision for everything. That just isn’t going to work. Once we take those steps to understand, we can find a path that is the best choice that we all can make.

Things your club can do

Clubs around the world are taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic they are using at meetings and events. Need some inspiration? Check out what these clubs have done:

The Rotary Club of Bandar Sungai Petani in Malaysia worked with its meeting venue to offer pitchers of water and reusable cups instead of plastic bottles.

Members of the Rotary E-Club of 9790 in Australia sponsored a Rotary Community Corps (RCC) focused on plastic, the Rotary Community Corps of Plasticwise Beechworth. In 2019, the RCC diverted 545 cubic feet of plastic from landfills. 

The Rotary Club of Walhekarwadi, India, rents stainless steel dinnerware for its meetings and events.  

The Rotary Club of Annapolis, Maryland, partnered with a local environmental organization and a composting company to make its annual crab feast zero-waste for the past seven years. The event uses compostable cups, trays, and utensils, and composts all food waste. Each year, more than 14.5 tons of waste is composted. 

At its annual Ribfest, the Rotary Club of Guelph Trillium, Ontario, has a free water refilling station and sells branded reusable bottles. 

A new life

You’ve finished your bottle of water, your container of laundry detergent, your milk jug. For you, that’s the end of the story. But for your bottle, it’s only the beginning. After your recyclables are collected, they’re sorted by glass, metal, and type of plastic, then sold to intermediaries that grind the plastics into flakes or pellets the size of rice grains. The pellets, called “nurdles,” are then sold to producers that melt them and turn them into new products.

There are seven codes on the bottom of plastic containers, signifying, among other things, the temperature at which they will melt. But only two are routinely recycled. Soda and water bottles — No. 1 plastics — may eventually become carpet or fleece clothing. Milk, juice, and detergent containers — No. 2 plastics — find new lives as decks, buckets, and Frisbees. Technology exists to convert plastic into crude oil and other fuels. But globally, recycling rates hover around 14 percent.

Waste pickers are the backbone of recycling in many parts of the world; they’ve been referred to as “invisible environmentalists.” In Brazil, where waste picking is recognized as an official occupation, the hundreds of thousands of catadores (as they are called) are responsible for 90 percent of the country’s recycling. Brazil was the first country to incorporate waste-picking cooperatives into its national solid waste policy, and it even contracted with waste pickers to help with recycling efforts during the 2014 World Cup.

In Rio Claro, waste pickers separate plastics according to their type and sell the material to an intermediary that cleans, grinds, and dries it, then sells it at a profit. Through a Rotary Foundation global grant project of the Rotary clubs of Rio Claro-Alvorada, Brazil, and Longwood, Pennsylvania, the local waste pickers cooperative received equipment to process the plastic itself, which will mean a 50 percent income increase and an expansion in the number of catadores who can participate.

Waste not

More plastic waste comes from product packaging than any other industry. It accounts for 65 percent of plastic waste by weight in the United States (and 59 percent in Europe). Some of this waste could be recycled — but even packaging that can be recycled often isn’t because it’s not collected by the municipality, it can’t be sorted, or it’s too stained with labels or food residue to be used.

The issue is complex, and sometimes switching to other materials can cause other unintended consequences. Glass, for example, is heavier than plastic and therefore requires more fuel to ship; single-use paper bags can have higher carbon impacts than single-use plastics.

Packaging is the first target of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which has been signed by more than 400 companies, including multinationals such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Unilever. Its goal is to create a circular economy for plastic, which includes eliminating unnecessary plastic items; ensuring that any plastics used are reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and keeping those plastics in the economy and out of the environment. (Read more at newplasticseconomy.org.)

The Rotary Club of Vero Beach, Florida, is working on a plastic recycling project in its community. In collaboration with the county landfill, the club has placed recycling bins in commercial facilities — such as a brewery and a store at a local outlet mall — to collect the shrink-wrap that their pallets of products are wrapped in. The county then takes the shrink-wrap to a recycling center, which sells it to companies that make plastic furniture and outdoor decking. The club also puts receptacles in the county’s two dozen schools where students can throw away their plastic lunch bags. Through a partnership with the Publix grocery store chain, the schools then bring the bags to a Publix store to be recycled. “If other Rotary clubs would do something similar,” says Vero Beach Rotarian Daniel Compas, “we could keep a whole lot of plastic out of landfills.”

• Illustrations by Studio Warburton

• This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.


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