The shape of business tomorrow is a circle
The economy of the future has a shape. It’s circular. If you haven’t heard the term “circular economy,” you likely are already familiar with the concept—and you will be hearing a lot more about it as it becomes a priority for more businesses. At Covestro, we’re making the circular economy integral to our business of providing polymers and plastics for a wide range of industries.
At its core, circular economics is a more dynamic and business-focused vision of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra that many of us have been hearing for decades. Unlike the traditional linear model that businesses have leaned on for years, circular economics strives to preserve and repurpose resources rather than discard them. It seeks to put them to continued use rather than sending them to landfills—and ultimately reduce or, in some cases, even eliminate the need for fossil fuels.
In the ideal vision of the circular economy, every resource—every material, product, byproduct, and good—has the potential for extended or new life, for new use. And businesses think critically before creating demand for new resources, relying as much as possible on more environmentally friendly alternative feedstocks (i.e., raw materials), as well as other resources that are renewable or already available. Ultimately, the circular economy is about working to unlock the maximum potential of things—whether it’s shoes, water coolers, waste material generated during manufacturing, or something else.
At Covestro, where I lead commercial operations for the Coatings, Adhesives, and Specialties business, enabling the circular economy is an imperative for us. We understand that, in a world of finite resources, infinite consumption becomes impossible without a conscious, collective, and dedicated effort to preserve natural resources and to derive maximum value from the things we create.
Given this need, Covestro is working hard—and thinking hard—to explore new feedstocks and discover new applications for the things we make, use, and deliver. And we’re finding impactful ways we can help contribute to the circular economy—with solutions that support a more sustainable future.
Creating real-world impact
One great example is a partially bio-based hardener we developed for the clearcoat that protect a car’s paintjob. This hardener consists of up to 70 percent renewable materials, meaning the final topcoat has a much lower carbon footprint than conventional applications—while delivering the same level of protection and appearance.
Or take foam mattresses, which are primarily made with polyurethane, a type of polymer. Today, we make our cardyon® polyurethane product with up to 20% carbon dioxide, a raw material that is both abundant and available as a chemical feedstock. We also have partnered with the Mattress Recycling Council to identify new business models and end-use markets for polyurethane foam scrap. Transforming the material into carpet padding has been one major focus area. But as consumer trends have changed, we have expanded our thinking and our quest for new sustainable practices—which is why we have turned our attention to chemical recycling of polyurethane foam.
Sustaining business momentum
And therein lies one of the big lessons when it comes to practices, processes, and products that can support the circular economy. It’s not a “one and done” proposition. Markets, technologies, and business models keep evolving. Businesses will also have to keep evolving—and innovating—as they seek to support the circular economy.
At Covestro, we are committed to doing just that—driven to help create a better future, guided by the principles of climate neutrality and resource protection. And we believe that any business hoping to survive and thrive in the future should be joining the circular economy journey—for a number of reasons.
The greatest reason is that we are facing substantial global challenges, including global warming caused by climate change as well as scarcity of resources. Such challenges threaten the environmental, economic, and societal conditions in which all businesses operate. Companies therefore have to understand the entire life cycle of the products they create or consume. They must do their part to make that life cycle more sustainable by using materials that are renewable, instead of creating new ones—as manufacturing new materials can have a greater carbon footprint. And they must also find ways for their products to serve other purposes at the end of life, rather than being thrown away.
Making the connections
As a company with its roots in Pittsburgh, where manufacturing helped build the foundation of the city we know today, Covestro has witnessed firsthand what it takes to transform the world around us. Pittsburgh itself is a story of rejuvenation and renaissance. But that change has to start somewhere, and sometimes getting started is the hardest part.
The opportunities for circular innovation are abundant, and the possibilities can be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to think big but start small—turning a small victory into an example of what’s possible, to inspire your employees and other organizations. Those two audiences will be critical to success. Your employees—because you will need to motivate them to make the circular economy a regular part of conversations. Other organizations—because you will need your peer companies, partners, government agencies, and industry associations to collaborate with you as you embark on the journey. Sustainable Pittsburgh—which is focused on “our region, our resources, our future”—serves as a great example of how that collaboration can occur. The nonprofit organization engages with hundreds of other organizations—including universities, local governments, and businesses of all sizes—to connect stakeholders as it works to ensure that sustainability knowledge is shared and applied across the region.
There are many dots to connect—and many questions to answer. Which resources can have new life or new use in another application? What knowhow or technology will that take? What kind of partner ecosystem will that require, and who is the end customer? What are the business and societal benefits? And at what point on “the circle” can my organization play a role? Are we a buyer, seller, or facilitator? Also, how can we create an organizational culture around circularity while also fostering circular thinking in the next generation of innovators?
You don’t have to connect the dots all by yourself—and you don’t have to find answers all on your own. As more organizations embrace the circular economy vision, as innovations emerge, and as business models evolve, the challenge becomes easier. The conversations become easier, and you realize that you are not in it alone. You are part of a movement—one focused on making an impact that will last for generations.
Aleta Richards, a Pittsburgh native, is head of commercial operations for the Coatings, Adhesives & Specialties (CAS) business unit for Covestro LLC. She has more than 30 years of experience in the materials science space, having worked with Covestro (then part of Bayer) since 1990. Richards earned her doctorate in business administration from Georgia State University. Contact her at Aleta.Richards@covestro.com.
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