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| be Waste Wise | August 16, 2022

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Circular Economy Business Models in Practice – UK and US Perspectives | with Emma Burlow

Circular Economy Business Models in Practice – UK and US Perspectives

Organized on 10th September, 2020

This webinar explores what makes CE business models work in practice with panelists from the UK and the US. Our panel, hosted by Emma Burlow, have first-hand experience of implementing circular business models and share the lessons they have learned, and their tips for success.

Head here to check the video on how we create change by Ocean Cycle.


While the panelists answered several audience questions during the live webinar, they could not respond to all the questions owing to time limitations. However, they have responded to the questions here. We recommend watching the webinar before reading these responses.

With more of a focus coming onto GPP under the EU Green Deal – do you think that case studies are useful for procurers and do you have any good examples or places to go to find out information that can be used to influence procurement?

Robert Goodwin: Case studies are always helpful and now there are many companies that are utilizing ocean bound material in products. From food packaging to reusable bags to engineered products and more coming on a monthly basis.  The challenge is that this is a new venture and someone is going to have to take some risk and try to make it happen within the supply chain. We recommend a business case by done but to also add in marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR) team members into the discussion.  They might be able to “buy down” the risk for procurement to implement pilot programs.  

We often hear that recycling does not belong in a circular economy. What is your view? And, if it fits within a circular economy, where does it fit in?

Emma Burlow: Recycling is very much a part of the circular economy – it is an outer circle and there should be an effort to work towards highest value inner circles such as reuse, repair, but at a molecular level it is essential. In nature, recycling is the basis for many cycles! If we begin to think of resources as molecules, then recycling is a vital part of the solution. Our current recycling systems are not working well, it’s a broken system in many places mainly due to economic drivers. This needs to change to make the system effective and 100% efficient. 

Ann Beavis: I agree with Emma on this, but I would never start a conversation on circularity and talk about recycling. I think for a long time we have been measuring the wrong things e.g. recycling percentages which has led to a focus on recycling rather than reuse and as such society has been slow to work up the waste hierarchy. Start at the top with prevention and work down to recycling, when you get there it is really needed to close the circle. 

Robert Goodwin: I think there are certain materials like PET that can be highly circular but it depends upon packaging design, collection and processing of the material.  When done correctly recyclers can get very high yields and PET can be reused many many times, and be turned back into the same product it came from. Tray to tray, bottle to bottle, etc.  I think the problem comes in when we use very low quality plastics that can only be downcycled and very few times. 

Any best practices for circular food waste business models?

Emma Burlow: There are a growing number of businesses using waste food in circular models, Toast Ale, several distilleries etc. However, it’s not an easy thing to do with mixed and packaged food waste. In carbon terms, reducing food waste is a priority, so here, recycling shouldnt be seen as a first option. 

Ann Beavis: There are also good online platforms for sharing excess food. Olio is the one that springs to mind but I think there are a few

If the recycling market bottoms out in Indonesia and elsewhere, are they dumping the plastic or is it just ‘leaking’ into the environment? Is it not illegal to dump in the ocean there? Is a legislative solution needed there?

Robert Goodwin: if prices are so low that people stop collecting plastic you will have more material entering the environment. If recyclables are not being collected it will further overwhelm the limited municipal waste systems and more plastics will be illegally dumped driving more ocean plastic. We see this all the time in Bali. Even though there is a strong desire to protect the environment the infrastructure is being overwhelmed and there is not enough landfill space. Hence, illegal dumping happens. There are fines in many of these communities but it can be difficult to enforce. 

How many businesses you deal with are aware about the Extended Producer Responsibility and how do they react to it in your view? Do they wait for policies to kick off or are more prone to initiate their own direction towards it?

Emma Burlow: Many larger businesses are aware of it, but most are waiting. It will also depend on the regions that they sell into. They are likely to be including it as a driver in decision making already but most are unlikely to act fully until there is a level playing field. 

Robert Goodwin: I think many are aware of the possibilities of Extended Producer Responsibility but I haven’t seen it enforced. For years there was discussion of huge taxes and fines for bottlers in Haiti.  Nothing ever was done. 

How do you feel about the mindshift change and developing action of corporations like Ikea and Unilever to introduce more sustainable materials (packaging in particular) and circular products? Presumably these are going to be effective to drive more rapid change with their marketplace also? And as consumers, how best can we act to support these efforts now?

Emma Burlow: I think there is an overemphasis on packaging but I can understand why that is. There needs to be a faster shift towards product, and the elephant in the room with these big brands is their consumption-based models. Whilst trials might be taking place, they need to be radically scaled to make any dent in the bulk of sales. Small steps but steps in the right direction. Consumer pester power is significant as demonstrated by the impact of Blue Planet. Consumers need to speak to every brand, everyday until their voices are heard. On the flip side, business needs to be informed enough not to knee jerk when faced with public outcry. Removing all plastic from products can have unintended consequences for example, there is a skill to be learned in communicating complex choices to consumers and not simply reacting to who shouts loudest. 

Robert Goodwin: I think this is a good step but what is important is that the companies actually fulfill their commitments on using better materials.  For example, Unilever has said they would have large amounts of recycled plastic in their products but I believe they are still only at about 2%.  

Buyers of our plastics are not wanting the bioplastics in the material because they say they cannot process it in their mills. So how do we keep them separate? 

Emma Burlow: Our systems are not set up to handle bioplastics. Either new investment needs to be made or we risk creating another problem. If you are putting a bioplastic on the market you need to be sure of its end of life, otherwise you are adding to the problem. Bioplastics that are home compostable should be relatively easy to separate if labelled and used for products that consumers already compost. However, many bioplastics are not compostable – they are a plastic made with bio rather than fossil ingredients which come with their own implications if additives are used for example. Reduction of all  unnecessary material use, fossil or bio should be the priority, only then do we design for recycling. If a bioplastic is a SUP I’m not yet convinced it is solving any problem at scale. 

Robert Goodwin: This is dependent upon the specific bioplastic. Some are surely much worse than others and will contaminate recycling streams. This will require labeling and proper sorting. Another reason to revamp our municipal collection processes and sort material at its source instead of crushing it all together and trying to piece it apart later like is done in the US and Europe. 

Quotas for ‘recycled content’ will not work because it is impossible to verify the quantity of reprocessed material in a package, so the industry can just say anything to the consumers without any check.

Emma Burlow: They are working well in driving market changes in the UK. The businesses are heavily audited, mostly under ISO conditions so whilst there will be rogues I’d be fairly confident most brands wouldn’t take the PR risk of getting this wrong. Plastic batches can be tested in the lab (and are) for purity and contaminants. 

Robert Goodwin: it is possible with the certification that OceanCycle set up to verify both that the material is post consumer (PCR) as well as actually ends up in the product, but it requires auditing the entire supply chain.  We have done this for some customers on products made from ocean-bound PET.  At the same time, without these types of audits you are correct there is opportunity for terrible fraud. We have heard many cases of people portraying something as PCR where it is actually virgin resin.  This is another unintended consequence of virgin pricing being at such low levels.


Emma Burlow


Founder, Lighthouse Sustainability.

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Robert Goodwin


Co-Founder and President @OceanCycle

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Ann Beavis Head Shot (2)


Founder @Honeymaker

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