Each year, we use more than 100 billion tons of raw material, and most of it ends up as pollution in the environment. To change that, we need to move toward a circular economy, where resources are used longer and reused later. How can we get there? National Geographic recently convened a discussion among CEOs, city officials, and other experts.



A daring solo journey around the world inspired Ellen MacArthur's groundbreaking effort to rethink how we use resources. During her record-setting 2005 voyage aboard a 75-foot trimaran, MacArthur was sometimes days away from rescue, and what she took along on the boat was all she had for more than 10 weeks.

She realized that situation paralleled humanity and the global economy's use of finite resources, and in 2010 established the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to develop and promote a circular economy. The best way to understand the circular economy concept, according to foundation CEO Andrew Morlet, is to compare it with our current linear economy, where just about every new product today requires new raw materials, and everything is designed to be disposable.


"In the linear economy, we're extracting value by using natural resources for a very short period of time and then wasting it," Morlet said. "The notion of a circular economy is to create value and to keep it in the economy for as long as possible and use as much as possible."

The circular economy has three phases: design, when materials are chosen to minimize waste; use, when products are then reused for as long as possible; and post-use, when materials are collected and recycled. The challenge is to design products to fit within an economy and stay there, keeping in mind the different contexts that exist in markets from New York to New Delhi.

"It's not just about recycling," he said. "Recycling is typically an end-of-pipe activity. The circular economy is a bigger idea that takes the entire system into mind."

The foundation recognized plastics as an important part of the waste stream, but Morlet and his team encountered a surprising lack of data about the global sources and eventual outcome of this material. The organization's 2016 report, The New Plastics Economy, revealed startling figures: Just 2 percent of the 78 million metric tons of plastic produced annually is being put back into the economy.

To tackle the problem, the foundation in 2018 launched the Global Commitment, a strategy to end plastic waste that has drawn more than 450 signatories, including major consumer goods companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Mars. The initiative's core principles are to eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastic; innovate to ensure the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, and compostable; and to circulate plastics within the economy to keep it out of the environment.

"Industry is a very big part of the solution," Morlet said. "This is where innovation resides." He pointed to Global Commitment signer PepsiCo's acquisition of SodaStream, which makes household sparkling water machines, allowing people to make their own soda at home with reusable bottles and eliminating billions of disposable ones.

Heartening momentum like this is balanced by a sobering reality. "There is a tsunami of plastics coming over the horizon," Morlet cautioned. "The volumes will double, the leakage will triple, the stocks will quadruple in the ocean-in our lifetime. That's a massive challenge."

The level of effort now must rise to the huge scale of the problem, he said, going beyond recycling to rethink the whole system. In this sense, those at the forefront are sailing into formidable waters, but also into new and promising territory.

"We need to tell the story of the circular economy as a story of contemporary exploration," he said. "This is meaningful exploration, ambition, and endeavor that is suitable for the times."

Andrew Morlet Chief Executive of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

There is a tsunami of plastics coming over the horizon... We need to actually match the ambition to the nature of the challenge we now know exists.



Cities as Metabolisms: Is Zero Waste Possible?

"Cities are perfect urban laboratories for managing waste," said moderator John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, at the start of this discussion about how the modern metropolis can become a hub for new ideas. After all, cities have both the population density and the scale to roll out new processes and programs efficiently.

So when the largest urban sanitation department in the world moves toward a circular economy, for example, does that have a broader effect?

Yes, said Bridget Anderson, the New York City Department of Sanitation's deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability. Last year, New York recycled over 680,000 tons of paper, cardboard, metal, glass, and plastic. That's just half of what should have been recycled, Anderson acknowledged, but it's still a lot. Because of that volume, the city has been able to invest in a state-of-the-art materials recovery facility to separate commingled recycling into bales, creating a reliable supply of reusable goods.

"Scale is certainly part of what allows us to be a leader within the supply chain," Anderson said. "What we're trying to do is create a clean, first-step reliable source [of] material that can then go back into the economy."

The models being created today could help cities in India, Africa, and Asia build for a circular economy from the start, said Swati Singh Sambyal, a New Delhi-based specialist in municipal waste management. In many of those cities, the main activity is focused on recycling, she said. "But because we have a very clean slate, it's a blank canvas," she added. "There also lies the opportunity that we can really work toward circular policies."


Toronto is also pioneering solutions to follow. The Canadian city introduced weekly food waste collection in 2002, partly in response to a shortage of landfill capacity. Food scraps and other compostables go into anaerobic digesters that break down the material, generating both compost and methane. The methane, or biogas, can be funneled into the city's pipelines for heat and hot water. It can also fuel the city's garbage trucks, replacing diesel. Annette Synowiec, Toronto's director of policy, planning, and outreach, says the biogas from waste could offset 3 to 7 percent of the city's natural gas consumption.

"Our residents want to see value in the services that we deliver," Synowiec said. Composting is one thing, she added, but the biogas program is also uncovering potential cost savings. Over 90 percent of households participate regularly in the "green bin" program, and the service is also being offered in multi-residential buildings.

Sambyal echoed the idea that cost-effective projects at the local level can help shape policy. She has seen a boom in projects across Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, where projects that benefit local communities then influence policies at state or local level.

The sheer volume of waste that cities contend with still creates hurdles for officials like Anderson and Synowiec as they try to reinvent practices that have been around for decades. Lacking vehicles to spare for pickups of electronics and textiles, for example, New York has relied on public-private partnerships that connect those waste streams with recyclers or charities. And Toronto is still trying to navigate the potential pitfalls in banning single-use plastics: A proposal to ban straws is being reworked to accommodate people with disabilities who rely on them to drink.

Cities also need to be able to verify that a product has recycled material in it before they can plan to require it in procurement contracts. That's why recent guidelines from the Association of Plastics Recyclers for third-party verification of recycled content are "a game-changer for us as a city in terms of policymaking," Anderson said.

This kind of partnership across government, industry, and residents is another way cities are providing a model for driving change. Anderson's assessment of what makes for success at the city level applies everywhere: "We need to find policies where everybody has a little skin in the game."


John Mandyck

Urban Green Council


Bridget Anderson

Deputy Commissioner for
Recycling and Sustainability
Department of Sanitation, New York City


Annette Synowiec

Director of Policy
Planning & Outreach


Swati Singh Sambyal

Municipal Waste Specialist

Because of their scale, cities are perfect urban laboratories for managing waste. Cities can lead with new processes and new programs.

JOHN MANDYCK, Urban Green Council



A diversified global industrial
manufacturer that aims to
create a healthier, more
sustainable future


Waste Management

The leading provider of
comprehensive waste
management in North America
with services that range from
collection and disposal to
recycling and renewable
energy generation


Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A global thought leader,
putting the circular economy
at the heart of business strategy
and on the agenda of policymakers
around the world


Leading Disruption

Sustainability. Circular Economy. Corporate Social Responsibility. Though these concepts barely existed just a short time ago, they are sparking conversation and action among business leaders today. Executives at major companies "clearly see the economic challenges presented by climate change," said Susan Goldberg, editorial director of National Geographic Partners and National Geographic magazine's editor in chief. "And many of them see not just an obligation, but an opportunity."

Goldberg led a discussion with three CEOs about the role businesses can play in building a circular economy. Noting that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has declared that "capitalism, as we know it, is dead," she asked Milliken & Company CEO Halsey Cook whether he agreed, and how that would affect a company like Milliken, an industrial manufacturer.


"Capitalism is alive and well—and evolving," Cook said. "As time has gone on, what we've seen is that the unintended consequence of businesses that have a blind eye toward their communities or toward the environment [is that they] end up becoming very risky enterprises."

Recognizing this, at least 47 companies, including Milliken, have joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste with the goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years aimed at ending plastic waste in the environment. Already, the group has raised $1 billion. But, Goldberg asked, is that target enough?

Jacob Duer, the alliance's CEO, estimated that in the Asia Pacific region alone, building the infrastructure to manage waste will require at least $50 billion.

"We do recognize that $1.5 billion is not enough," Duer said. "But if we can be part of identifying the solutions that can solve the problem, then we know that the resources are out there."

Companies like Waste Management already have a healthy business recycling plastics, such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which are often used for bottles. However, those are just two among many other varieties of plastics, such as the thin films used for food wrap and packaging. Waste Management has invested $600 million so far in solutions for "low-value" plastics, said Jim Fish, Waste Management's CEO. One effort involves making roofing material from low-value plastic and mixed paper. But Fish cautioned that such ideas need to prove economically viable.

"We have the same amount, or even more supply, coming into our recycle plants, but the demand on the back end is the microeconomic problem," Fish said. "Part of the answer here has to be an increase in the use of recycled materials on the back end."

Cook, on the other hand, said he does not think demand for recycled materials will be the issue in scaling up recycled plastics. Both he and Duer emphasized the need for quality post-use material, which will require better collection and sorting.

All of the panelists agreed, however, that solutions must be found. Consumers are asking for them, and governments are beginning to require them: In Europe, PET bottles will need to have 30 percent recycled content by the end of the decade. Every business will need to chart its own path forward.

"There's no playbook," Cook said. "There's just a lot of courage and aspirations for the future."


Susan Goldberg

National Geographic Magazine


Halsey Cook

President and CEO
Milliken & Company


Jim Fish

President and CEO
Waste Management


Jacob Duer

President and CEO
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste

The data is very clear that companies that focus on doing the right things over time have higher returns than the averages of the S&P 500.



Re-thinking End-of-life Solutions for Plastic

Even in conversations about the problematic tide of plastic waste, an inescapable truth emerges: Plastic has enabled many modern advancements, from sterile medical equipment to lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. If plastic is here to stay, how do we make sure it eventually goes to the right place?

Valerie Craig, vice president of impact initiatives at the National Geographic Society, talked with the leaders of four organizations engaged in finding the answers to this tough question. And right off the bat, the panel of recycling advocates emphasized that recycling can't fix everything.

"The truth is, recycling will not fix the circular economy," said Keefe Harrison, CEO of nonprofit The Recycling Partnership. "But the circular economy could fix recycling."


Scott Saunders, general manager of the recycler KW Plastics, echoed this idea: "We're part of the solution, but not the entire solution." KW processes HDPE and PP (polypropylene), investing where it sees potential returns. Saunders estimated the company has recovered about 22 billion food containers made from PP since 2012—an important amount to keep out of the environment, he said, but not a huge percentage of the market.

Another recycler, TerraCycle, works with consumer goods companies that defray the cost of figuring out processes for packaging that tends to get trashed, such as snack bags and cosmetics containers. Operating in 22 countries, the company pays processors a premium to work on selected materials. "As long as the economics can bear working with the processors, we'll be able to do it," said Ernel Simpson, TerraCycle's vice president of research and development. "We use the same model all over the world."

But no amount of creativity in the recycling world can offset the fact that we are still making too much plastic and throwing too much of it away, said Nina Butler, CEO of the consulting firm More Recycling.

"Even if we have the most amazing, innovative recyclers," Butler said, "they are still not going to fill that huge gap between new capacity and recycling."

So how could the circular economy fix recycling, as Harrison suggested? Already, recyclers like Saunders and Simpson are working with an increasing number of companies that recognize the need for solutions. But companies can't expect people to recycle widely if only 59 percent of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, said Harrison, whose group advocates for improvements to the current system. Of the country's 20,000 local governments, 9,000 of them operate their own recycling programs, deciding what will be recycled and how.

"Does that seem like a good way to build a reverse supply chain?" Harrison asked, cupping her ear to silence from the audience. "I agree with you!" she responded, drawing laughter.

Butler added that we need better ways of verifying recycled content and that we need to put a price on the carbon footprint of a product, from how it is made to how it is used and recycled (or not). "Voting for carbon policy will unlock all the opportunities," she said.

Together, the panel highlighted the many aspects of our economy that will need to change in order to close the loop on waste, from local governments and consumers to policymakers, manufacturers, and recyclers.

"A circular economy is making sure that from the point of design, end of life is in mind," Harrison said. "But you can't design your way out of this. You have to have the system for it."


Valerie Craig

Vice President
Impact Initiatives,
National Geographic Society


Scott Saunders

General Manager
Recycling Division,
KW Plastics


Keefe Harrison

Chief Executive Officer
The Recycling Partnership


Ernel Simpson

Vice President
Research & Development,


Nina Butler

Chief Executive Officer
More Recycling

Sometimes recycling and circular economy get interchanged. We need to use this moment in time to stop that.



Is a world without trash possible?

The vision of a "circular economy"—where we use resources sparingly and recycle endlessly—is inspiring businesses and environmentalists alike.