Business, Plastic Pollution and the Circular Economy

by Diana Drake

When the Wharton Global Youth editorial team brainstorms ideas for the business journal articles that we write for high school students, we consider a few sources – emerging themes and issues in the business world, the latest research and analysis from the Wharton School community, and, of course, you. We listen to the voices of high school students in our networks, programs and courses to find out what sparks your curiosity, and then we try to deliver insight that will help you explore and understand those interests more deeply.

For this, our latest story at the intersection of business and the environment, you can thank Alex B., co-grand prize winner of our 2023 Comment & Win contest and a high school senior in Pennsylvania, U.S. In a comment in response to our Wharton Global Youth article The Role of Business in the ‘Biggest Issue We Face as a Planet,’ Alex wrote about his love for orcas igniting his passion to understand how warming ocean waters and plastic ocean pollution were severely affecting the ocean ecosystems and species survival. While he envisioned a day when environmental strategies for fighting climate change were “as basic as eating three meals a day,” he also expressed frustration that terms like ‘circular economy’ are not even in his classmates’ vocabularies. So, let’s break it down.

Masks, Owls and Closing the Loop

A good place to start with the circular economy is to consider one that is more linear – what experts like to call the take-make-waste economic model. Products are created and consumed, then thrown into landfills, where they pollute the land and air and contribute to global warming. Plastics are a significant part of this waste stream. According to the United Nations Foundation, more than 430 million tons of plastic are produced each year, two-thirds of which becomes waste after just one use (water bottles!). Some 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans each year.

A circular economy tries to minimize waste through recycling and reuse. Picture this: all manufactured products are automatically repurposed or reduced to their component parts and recycled for other uses. “The circular economy is about closing the loop on the cycle,” notes Eric Orts, a Wharton School professor of ethics and legal studies. “You create a cycle where at the end of the day you recycle and reuse the stuff you’re making. It’s recycling in a deep way. Once you use up your clothes, you send them back and they reuse the materials. You’re hurting the planet less by closing the loop on where you’re sourcing things. And you’re not using new things.”

Alex B’.s high school project illustrates the concept – and how he deepened his own understanding of sustainability and the circular economy. Through Smart Recycling Now, a nonprofit he started with other teens concerned about plastics pollution, Alex recycled plastic KN95 masks used during COVID to build houses for endangered owls. “We sent these masks to an outside supplier called Terracycle, who transformed them into bricks to create owl homes in California, where my friend lives,” says Alex. “Before this, I had no idea what the circular economy was. Having the ability to take a resource and recycle it and have a loop of what you can do with it opens up so many opportunities in the real world.”

Peter Wang Hjemdahl of rePurpose Global.

The grand vision for the circular economy is a world without waste, says Peter Wang Hjemdahl, co-founder of New York City-based rePurpose Global and a social entrepreneur who is on a plastic waste-minimization crusade – albeit on a much grander scale than Alex’s masks-to-owl-boxes.

Peter and his co-founders, Svanika Balasubramanian and Aditya Siroya, started rePurpose Global when they were undergrads at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Since graduating in 2018, they have grown rePurpose Global into a plastic-pollution powerhouse that is “rewriting the rules of the world’s waste problem.” As champions of a circular economy model, they are tackling plastic waste on all fronts. So far, the company claims to have recovered more than 47,400 pounds of nature-bound plastic.

Collectively Combating the Plastic-waste Crisis

Global Youth caught up with Peter Hjemdahl over Zoom to talk about the bigger issues. “Plastic waste is a multi-dimensional social and environmental problem. It has implications for climate change, biodiversity loss, negative impacts on human health, pollution and extreme poverty,” says Peter, who also served as the client for the 2022-2023 Wharton Global High School Investment Competition.  “I spent a big part of my childhood in China and my co-founders in India. The waste pickers came and collected from our households. There’s a big element of poverty when you’ve got waste workers who are exploited by and are dealing with the consequences of our consumption.”

In his research, Professor Orts concludes that every business has to have a climate imperative about its behavior – and it’s unlikely that companies will change without some force and a lot of effort.

rePurpose Global is on the front lines of this fight, says Peter. “We bring together brands, consumers, policymakers and innovators under one roof to collectively combat the plastic-waste crisis,” he notes.  “We help organizations and companies, particularly looking at consumer-packaged goods in industries such as food, beverage, health, beauty, cosmetics, personal care and household, to measure, reduce and take action on their plastic footprint. These are the companies that are producing and using the single-use plastics.”

“If we think that business is doomed, then we are doomed.” –Peter Wang Hjemdahl, rePurpose Global

The rePurpose business model (which Peter says has changed and evolved since he and his co-founders won Penn’s President’s Engagement Prize in 2018) is multifaceted, including: helping companies analyze and measure their plastic and waste footprint; reducing that footprint within their supply chain through solutions like accessing recycled materials for products; pioneering a system of plastic crediting, an environmental finance mechanism that attracts funding from companies that are contributing to the plastic-pollution crisis and deploys it into impact projects to recover plastic waste; and providing basic waste collection and management services to underserved households across the world. (Check out this Global Youth video interview for a glimpse of rePurpose in the early days).

It’s surprising, observes Peter, how many massive businesses don’t have “a grip” on their plastic use. However, while he appreciates activism, he doesn’t encourage demonizing the business world for its role in the crisis. “If we think that business is doomed, then we are doomed,” he says. “Business is part and parcel of our society today. Working with these businesses on the inside, I see a lot of momentum and motivation to transform business into a force for good…There are very cutthroat elements of business as well. It’s about finding that balance to answer to the business incentive, while also trying to change the business incentive.”

But there is still much work to be done. In his efforts to minimize the quantity of materials that are flowing in and out of the world – embracing that circular-economy mindset – Peter stresses the power of scientific thinking and knowledge. “Students need to apply an interdisciplinary approach to these problems. Sustainability, plastics and pollution are all complex topics. They touch everybody — individuals, governments, consumers, businesses and activists. It’s important to get educated and understand these issues that are so core to our future.”

Back at Haverford High School in Pennsylvania, Alex B. is doing his part, creating entertaining educational videos about the circular economy and climate change to amplify on social media. “Smart Recycling Now is an outlet to show other students that we can really make a change by reusing materials,” says Alex. “A lot of my classmates will acknowledge the fact that climate change is happening and that this issue is plaguing our generation; however, when it comes to action, they have little interest to try to make change. It’s going to take more education and persuasion.”

Conversation Starters

What is a circular economy and how do you embrace this concept? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

We hear about lots of student activists fighting against climate change — and yet, Alex B. is somewhat discouraged by his classmates’ inaction. Do you agree that high school students need greater awareness of the issues? Is that enough to inspire activism and real progress?

Peter Wang Hjemdahl calls plastic waste a “multi-dimensional social and environmental problem.” What does he mean by this? Why is it more than just a pollution crisis that is accelerating climate change?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *