Circular Economy Symposium at Harvard – What happened?

Last Friday we audited the Circular Economy Symposium organized by multiple Harvard schools and research centers.
That’s what happened and what we think about it.

Circular Economy: Why here, why now?

The event started with the keynote speech of Michelle Brownlee (Director General of Strategic Policy, Environment and Climate Change Canada).
We try to report her speech by using 3 quotes.

We often stress the importance of acting locally, but what is local in Canada and Northern America?

Surely, it can’t have the same meaning as in the EU, the population density in the EU is more than 30 times bigger than in Canada.
This must be taken into account when implementing the Circular Economy.

Canada’s economy is export-oriented and resource-based. This implies the challenge of designing resources in a way that it can still unlock circular opportunities after international trade.

The previous two quotes clearly state the emerging need for a global circular value chain model. If we keep developing the circular system in silos we risk making a transition towards a not-sustainable economy. Therefore, we agree with Miss Brownlee when she states that:

Even if the amount of papers in the last years is increased, more work should be done to better connect the network of researches.

This would also increase the probability of reaching a common understanding of the Circular Economy.

Panel 1 – Circular Industries and their barriers

The first panel put the spotlight on four companies with a fundamental role, in different positions, of circular value chains.

A) Rubicon Global (US), a tech start-up dealing with the mission of ending waste and persuading this mission by offering IT solutions for waste management and recycling.

B) Algramo (CL), a company dealing with the transition to products as a service, with the specific mission of ending single-use plastic.

C) Dupont Biomaterials (US), a leader in sustainable materials innovation, with the ultimate goal of being an important part of the circular economy. member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100 initiative since 2018.

D) Finally, Monica Maria Moeskær from the Danish Design Centre presented their Circular Constructions Challenge.

The construction sector generates almost half of the world’s waste. The three winning solutions demonstrate new ways of upcycling, recycling and reusing waste, turning it into a new resource.

During the Panel, the speakers addressed some of the barriers they are encountering in their journey towards a circular economy: 

Michael Allegretti (CSO at Rubicon) states that there is a behavioral bias towards single-use resources, however, there is a panel-wise consensus that costumers’ preferences are changing (e.g. from cheaper to long-lasting) and that, therefore, transparency plays now a more important role to increase trust in a brand.

Other barriers that have been identified are inconsistent policies (which will be further discussed in panel 2) and the lack of circular infrastructure.

The sum of those economic activities shows us that there is increasing potential to fill in all the positions of circular value chains, however, the Circular Economy must be adopted systematically and the whole system must value more than the sum of the single activities.
To do that we must increase the amount of information shared among stakeholders.

Since we are dealing with this issue in the DigiPrime project we have asked the 4 company representatives if they would be ready to share their data in a protected environment (blockchain / federated learning).
All of them said yes. 

Panel 2 – Is the future of Circularity in International Trade or in Domestic Market?

The second panel has the format of a debate. Subject: Is the future of circularity in international trade or domestic market?
In the middle Siddarth Shrikanth from the Harvard Kennedy School moderating.
On his right side Giuliana Torta (Delegation of the EU to the US) and Dr. Mark Wu, Henry L. Stimson (Professor of Law, Harvard Law School) defending the importance of the domestic market.
On his left side Shunta Yamaguchi (Oecd Environment Directorate, by video) and Mario Jales (UNCTAD) defending the importance of international trade.

They concluded that being climate change a global issue requiring local solutions booth approaches to the circular economy are fundamental and synergies between the two must be considered when designing new policies. This implies the need for an international legal framework.

Panel 3 – Financing for a circular economy at scale

We missed this, sorry.
But we recommend you to see the recorded video of the Symposium. (Link Coming Soon)

Panel 4 – Question time for circular economy researchers

The last panel was mainly a set of Q/As, among the many interesting answers the following took our attention: 

  1. The Circular Economy is multidisciplinary therefore we need to update the academic system and increase the interactions with the industries if we want to correctly prepare students.
  2. Justin Bours (Cradle to Cradle product innovations institute) considers the single-use plastic ban an unsuccessful case of the Circular Economy. This, because there are no good enough standards. For example, compostable plastics, which is often considered as a solution, make methane when it goes into landfill which is more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2 over its lifetime.
  3. Annie Osborn repeated several times during the panel the positive effects of a plant-based diet on the circular economy. Because it leads to a reduction of packaging consumed. 
  4. We must think holistically when dealing with circular value chains; we shouldn’t only close the gaps of the loops but also slowing the loops (by increasing the resource efficiency among the chain) and shrinking the loops (by decreasing the amount of material needed for the generation of the same value.)

11.00 PM Brussels Time, the closing remarks, the day was over and we heard so many interesting inputs and ideas, we will address some of these in future posts. We are thankful to the organizers for such a wonderful initiative and for having given us the possibility to attend from the other side of the ocean. We would certainly like to give our input to the next edition.

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