Written by: Becky MacWhirter and Derek Stephenson on March 15, 2013

With three billion new middle-class consumers projected to enter the global marketplace in the coming decades, it is now widely acknowledged that the global economy of tomorrow will face material scarcity and supply chain insecurity at an unprecedented scale. In this article, we argue that a holistic approach that entails the thoughtful design and harmonization of stewardship programs coupled with a radical shift in internal corporate decision-making will produce the scale of change needed to feed the supply chains of the future.

A primary goal of the circular economy is waste prevention; a successful transition would virtually eliminate material leakage and disposal by treating waste as a feedstock for new processes. Policies that require producers to be directly involved in the recovery of products at their end-of-life are therefore inextricably linked to the goals of the circular economy. Producers of an increasingly wide range of consumer products are now obligated in more than 50 countries to design, implement and fund the end-of-life management of the products that they supply into the market — a policy approach known broadly as product stewardship and in some countries as extended producer responsibility. However, many of today’s models for resource recovery, reuse and recycling fall short of maximizing innovation and social benefits due to poor program design and the fact that product stewardship programs are generally managed at a sub-national level; this results in reduced economic efficiency through significant revenue loss as large volumes of high-value materials cannot be leveraged in a patchwork system. Major multinational companies are now required to participate in hundreds of individually regulated recycling programs around the globe, each with differing rules and responsibilities. Innovation is stymied and resources wasted due to a lack of scale and poorly conceived public policies.

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