January 18, 2017

Library Program on Circular Economy Takes Sustainability a Step Further

Advocating the benefits of recycling to residents of Princeton can be like preaching to the choir. But there is more to creating a truly sustainable community than even the most dedicated recyclers may be aware.

An event at Princeton Public Library Thursday, January 19, will explore a concept that takes recycling to the next level. “Beyond Recycling: Building the Circular Economy in New Jersey,” co-sponsored by Sustainable Princeton, examines a growing business movement that uses a life-cycle approach to keep materials and resources in use as long as possible to avoid pollution and reduce waste. That means that products are designed, from the very beginning, with materials that can be repurposed and used in other products rather than tossed into the landfill.

“There seems to be a lot of emphasis on how to recycle, what goes where, and what the options are. That’s important,” said Christine Symington, Sustainable Princeton’s program director. “But before we get to recycling, if we really want to reduce waste we have to start at the beginning with the products that become waste.”

The existing economy is linear. We extract resources to make bottles, glass, paper, and other products which we consume and then send to the landfill. “The new paradigm shift is that you think of the entire life cycle of a product from its inception — from how you design it to how you deal with its end of life,” Ms. Symington said. “The idea is to try to make a system that is circular, not linear. So we’re not only producing less waste, but extracting less raw materials to make goods we use every day.”

A website devoted to the concept, ellenmacarthurfoundation.org, lists a flooring company, a firm that makes lighting systems, and others that manufacture cleaning products and washing machines — among those that have adopted the circular model. As part of the presentation this week, local businesses including Green Design and Terracycle will be highlighted. The event is catered by Jammin’ Crepes, another local business that is thinking circularly. “They are very conscious of the products they purchase, not only in the food they make but in the design of their store,” Ms. Symington said.

Dylan Siegler, the sustainability coordinator with NRG Energy and an expert on the circular economy, will moderate the panel discussion at the event. Speakers come from companies that are considering or already involved with the concept, including BASF and Terracycle. “Terracycle, in Trenton, has upcycling, which is an effort to see waste as raw materials and new products,” Ms. Symington said. “Their motto is to directly work with producers to create circular systems where they can return materials.”

The presentation, which is free and will be held in the library’s Community Room at 7 p.m., is geared to anyone with an interest in the process. And for any certified recycling professionals, attendance counts as a continuing education credit.

“We’re trying to raise awareness of things that are being done by companies to solve the waste stream problem,” Ms. Symington said. “We want this to be an opportunity for folks who know a bit about recycling to understand what else is going on. I don’t know that constituents are necessarily aware that these things are being thought of at the corporate or more institutional level. There are companies out there that are making materials and really thinking about the end of life of their products.”