Tom Szaky: “The change towards a complete circular economy is a slow process”

Één van de aanjagers van Circulaire Economie in de wereld is Tom Szaky, Founder en CEO van TerraCycle, Inc. Wij vroegen hem naar de belangrijkste uitdagingen rondom, en de toekomst van, Circulaire Economie. “The principal reason our world produces tons...

Één van de aanjagers van Circulaire Economie in de wereld is Tom Szaky, Founder en CEO van TerraCycle, Inc. Wij vroegen hem naar de belangrijkste uitdagingen rondom, en de toekomst van, Circulaire Economie.

“The principal reason our world produces tons of waste each day is that it’s cheaper to put most types of used products and packaging in a landfill or burn them (waste to energy/incineration) and make new products from virgin materials, than it is to collect, recycle and make new products from the recycled materials. We’ll focus on how TerraCycle reverses these economics, enabling the recycling of pretty much everything. The key is to find synergies so that a vicious (linear) process can be turned into a virtuous (circular) cycle.”

Circular Economy: a system change or an urgent necessity?

A circular economy is definitely an urgent necessity. From a waste perspective, too many pieces of waste are still discarded in landfills or end up being incinerated. While incineration is certainly a better option than landfill, and in some cases can be used to generate energy, it is far from a perfect solution. Some markets class waste to energy as recycling, but this an inaccurate representation as regardless of the energy benefits, valuable resources are lost forever. The only solutions I see are cyclical processes where we reuse the waste over and over again.

I do however realise that the change towards a complete circular economy is a slow process and might take decades to be fully accomplished. Just look at how long it took countries to establish a successful paper and glass collection and recycling infrastructure. The fundamental shift has to come from consumers demanding circular products and voting with their euros. That is eventually what will get manufacturing companies to change their practice and move from disposable to durable.

What are the main challenges regarding the circular economy?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the mind set of consumers. We live in a society which is heavily skewed towards over consumption. Consumers will need to decide to consciously consume less rather than more.
Consumers should also be willing to move away from cheap/disposable products and decide to invest in products that are durable, environmentally friendly and unfortunately often more expensive.

There is however also a responsibility on the side of manufacturers. Manufacturers need to de-prioritize market size growth and focus only on market share. Manufacturers have chosen to focus on disposables and grow their market. If, for example, the world moved away from manufacturing disposable razors and manufacture durable razors instead, we would automatically move towards a more circular economy. We do however need manufacturers, such as P&G, to take the lead to make this happen.

What opportunities does a circular economy offer?

The fundamental opportunity I see is a sustainable healthy world. If we put more value in durability and reusability, instead of disposability and cheap products, we would also witness a shift to better quality, high end products.

If we were to meet again in March 2020, what role would the circular economy have (in the world)?

My dream would be that it would be fundamentally different. I fear however that we will only see a modest change. My sceptical view is that we will only take small (almost meaningless steps) until the system gets shocked as a result of a major disaster or the depletion of our oil reserves. Let’s hope that conferences such as this one will speed up the process before nature catches up with us.

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