Cities and Urbanization

Waste-free consumption: 3 reasons why cities will lead

Bundles of pressed bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic are stored at Poly Recycling AG company in Bilten, Switzerland April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - RC11F0072980

Cities serve as active laboratories for improving environmental sustainability. Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Zara Ingilizian
Head, Consumer Industries; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Cities and Urbanization

Cities are engines of economic growth. They are also central drivers of unsustainable patterns of consumption, with urban consumers particularly accustomed to the convenience of on-the-go and home-delivery consumption.

A primary consequence has been the rapid growth in disposable packaging from fast-moving consumer goods that has led to a global plastics waste crisis. Globally, more than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in our oceans annually. With 3 million people moving to urban centres every week, cities have to be at the forefront of rethinking the consumption landscape.

Many cities today serve as active laboratories for testing new ways to consume, produce and distribute products that hold the promise to better reconcile consumer needs with environmental sustainability.

Recently the Loop Alliance launched pilots in both Paris and New York to test its durable packaging platform with over 5,000 consumers in each location. London, Toronto, Tokyo and San Francisco are next. Loop, led by New Jersey-based recycling company TerraCycle, was catalysed by the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform, which strives to advance responsible consumption. Announced earlier this year at the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Loop aims to establish a new model of consumption that ends society’s dependence on disposability and shifts to durable packaging for re-use.

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What is Loop and how does it work?

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What is Loop?

The world’s largest consumer goods companies – including P&G, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever – as well as leading retailers like Carrefour,Tesco and Walgreen's have joined this effort. They are prototyping new durable packaging formats and helping test solutions for reverse logistics, cleaning and refilling.

Loop is a leading example of the types of innovative solutions the World Economic Forum can catalyse and accelerate as part of its Consumers Beyond Disposability Platform. Cities will play an important part in this multi-stakeholder effort by guiding and enabling action on the ground.

There are three key reasons why cities play an important role in testing and developing innovative solutions like Loop:

1. Density. The high concentration of consumers in urban spaces provide the required scale to pilot new solutions within a manageable geography. If industry is willing to invest in testing new ideas, reaching a large pool of target consumers makes piloting more attractive. Large urban areas also offer the proximity of manufacturing, packaging, logistics and sanitation providers, all of which play a part in enabling new delivery models. Finally, more sustainable solutions often depend on asset reuse (e.g. of packaging) or shared asset use (e.g. beverage dispensing units). Cities can generate higher user-to-asset ratios, making the economics work better, even at initially lower consumer adoption rates.

2. Network effects. Cities are natural incubators for innovative solutions because they provide a platform for creative exchange among the diversity of actors necessary for systems change. Similar to fashion trends, new solutions are also more likely to spread and scale in urban centers. Just Salad, a restaurant chain from New York, introduced a reusable bowls program across its locations in the city and then replicated the concept abroad. Customers can reuse the bowl in their outlets and reap extra benefits such as free salad toppings.

3. Comparative advantage on implementation. The waste crisis poses a much starker reality for crowded urban centers, putting waste management much higher on the local political agenda than in scarcely populated areas. Compared to national governments, cities are often more nimble to drive change across different sectors and departments – for example sustainability, procurement and education. With its BRING IT initiative, New York City, in partnership with S’well, has given over 320,000 reusable water bottles to public high school students to shift away from single use. Tokyo has already announced it will leverage its role as host city for the 2020 Olympic Games to showcase innovative resource-efficient models of consumption and production.

Cities have served as the cradle for many innovative solutions – from mobility and fashion to entertainment and architecture. They will also play a central role in incubating the next generation of models that will redefine how we shop, produce and distribute.

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Related topics:
Cities and UrbanizationSustainable DevelopmentFuture of the Environment
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