Plastics Recycling Update

Entering the digital age of buying and selling

Shannon Gordon, the chief operating officer of Circular.Co., speaks about the growing trend of digital commodity trading at the 2024 Plastics Recycling Conference. | Big Wave Productions/Plastics Recycling Update

Online buying, selling and trading is the future of recycled commodity sales – but we’re not in the future quite yet, digital platform providers said at the 2024 Plastics Recycling Conference in March. 

During the Grapevine, Texas-hosted conference’s “Commodity Trading Goes Digital” session, Resource Recycling Associate Editor Colin Staub moderated a conversation with Blake Gordon, the general manager of digital trading at Georgia-Pacific Recycling, and Shannon Gordon, the chief operating officer of Circular.Co. 

Georgia Pacific Recycling has launched hubbIT, an online buying platform that allows buyers to sell to Georgia Pacific with a few clicks.

“We give you the price that Georgia Pacific Recycling is willing to pay right here, right now in real time, 24/7,” Blake Gordon said. “They’re accessible to you whenever you’re ready to move that material and you can transact right there on the platform.” 

He said the goal is to simplify this transaction process and make Georgia Pacific more accessible to more suppliers. Right now, the platform covers the most highly traded commodities in fiber and plastics in the continental U.S. 

“You go in there, you find the price for your material, in three clicks, less than a minute, you’ve locked in that price,” he said.

Georgia Pacific wants to be careful to maintain the strong relationships that traders, suppliers and customers have formed over years of deals made via phone calls, he said, but their research found that some suppliers are spending as much as 60% of their time each day “calling around trying to get a price for their material.”

“We thought that if we can help alleviate that one most precious, precious commodity that no one can get any more of – time – if we can address time, can we help empower some of these smaller suppliers and larger suppliers that don’t have outlets,” he said. 

Circular.Co is a digital commodity trading platform focused on post consumer resin sourcing, Shannon Gordon said, and the company’s mission “is to transition global manufacturing to using sustainable materials.” 

The way to do that is through data, she said. 

“On the one hand, we’ve got demand – it is clearly there,” she said. “And on the other hand, we all know that the supply is there. In fact, a key theme of this conference last year, one of our takeaways, was that suppliers were looking for long-term contracts to offload inventory. So demand is there, supply is there – what’s wrong?”

The problem, she said, is that the PCR market is fragmented and relationship based. 

“It’s opaque, it’s analog and therefore inefficient, and pricing is highly volatile,” she said. “And those are not components that make for a highly liquid or commoditized market, which is what we need for the free flow of transactions in this space.”

Circular.Co’s digital platform seeks to solve that by making supply sources transparent and more accessible. 

“Imagine you could see every supply source in your region, you could see what they’ve sold in the past, what price they’ve sold it at, what the spec was of that material,” Shannon Gordon said. “You could understand what that supplier was potentially selling in the future and what their target price was. You could understand where their feedstock came from, you could understand the freight and logistics associated with buying through them.”

“We have spent a lot of time at Circular trying to figure out how to build this for the world,” she added. 

Circular.Co allows buyers to use more than 161 different filters and search across a broad range of more than 9,000 suppliers across the globe. Prospective buyers can submit a digital request for statements of qualifications and run testing, compliance and onboarding processes through the platform, as well as get an avoided emissions calculation at the end of the transaction. 

It’s starting to catch on. Shannon Gordon said in the last quarter, Circular.Co worked with nine global brands and delivered to them, on average, 11 new vetted suppliers in about two weeks time. The platform has also sourced 35,000 tons of material. 

However, there’s a long way to go before digital trading platforms are the norm, both speakers noted. Georgia Pacific’s Blake Gordon said that “adoption is slow for this industry.” 

“It’s a very unique industry. There’s no way of denying that,” he said. “Truly, there’s so much variability. There’s so much legacy knowledge that goes into this industry. It’s very familial. It’s very tight-knit, too.”

People are interested in the digital platforms, he said, but some worry that it will remove the relationship aspect of buying and selling, of chatting about family while making a deal. 

“That’s never going to be the case,” he said. “This is more of an option,” especially for a “generation that wants to get more tech savvy, that wants to simplify this, that wants to save that opportunity cost and move faster.” 

Shannon Gordon said she used to work in retail, and the idea of online commerce once seemed shocking. 

“It was like, but I can’t go in the store and touch and feel the product?” she said. “And similarly, I think we’re in a transition in this industry where it’s going to be hard.

“What will change hearts and minds is when we start to see the kind of impact that we’re starting to see,” she added.  

Looking to the future, Shannon Gordon said that policy around the globe is trending toward more PCR and eco-modulated fees within extended producer responsibility laws, so companies will need a way to track what they’re buying and increase PCR usage to save on fees. 

She noted that Circular.Co’s software has an explore module that allows companies to virtually test different blends of PCR for their products and see how it affects performance. That gives them a better starting point than testing every iteration at a lab level. 

“Getting there fast is critical, and I think data and digital platforms can help with that,” she said.  

Circular.Co is also working on a track and trace feature based on user demand, she added. 

The two speakers said they did not view each other as competitors, but also said competition isn’t a bad thing. 

“We welcome it,” Shannon Gordon said. “What Blake is doing at Georgia Pacific is different than what we’re doing. We’re each bringing a different value proposition and perhaps view the holistic problem the same, but have taken different chunks of it in many cases. And so I think there’s plenty of room for this to be solved.” 

Blake Gordon agreed, noting that everyone has the same goal: to increase recyclability and the amount of material flowing into the recycling stream. 

“We need to make it easier for people to do that,” he said. “We need to empower more people and give them access.”

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