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This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

Addressing the global overconsumption and waste crisis is critical to mitigating environmental degradation and social injustices. People across companies, industries and communities around the world are working to address this pervasive crisis with a network of solutions ranging in viability, effectiveness and adoption. As experts, professionals, industries, brands and governments work to build a circular economy, there are existing solutions that need to be scaled up, innovative approaches to accelerate and adopt, and key stakeholders and change agents who need to be identified in order to create effective, widespread change. 

The Diffusion of Innovation Theory explains why drivers of the circular economy need diverse solutions to achieve circularity goals. Consumption and waste are inherently very human and thus social challenges. To create change in supply chains, materials management and the circular economy, solutions need to spread through populations and social systems. The theory emphasizes that the most innovative new ideas, behaviors or products are adopted by just a small proportion of people early on, and over time additional populations adopt or reject the innovations. There are five categories of adopters identified in this theory: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Each of these represents unique characteristics demonstrating their interaction with innovations and the approach needed for effective adoption.

Within the context of the circular economy, the Diffusion of Innovation Theory emphasizes the need for both known solutions and more innovative ideas, recognizing that early adopters pave the way for broader acceptance. Traditional recycling is currently the most widely adopted solution and most established system, reaching across the five categories of adopters, while other circular solutions are still emerging and less widely adopted. To have the most impact on building the circular economy, known solutions like recycling need to be improved while also feeding the pipeline of innovative solutions to complement those systems. 

NextCycle is a state-funded program with demonstrated success in supporting solutions across the five stages of adoption, helping attract and facilitate the growth of solutions for recycling and the circular economy. The program is designed around accelerating solutions toward a circular economy where “waste” is no longer part of the system. Launched in three states—Colorado, Michigan and Washington—it is strategically adapted to meet specific regional, statewide and even national needs. 

The NextCycle model has created a space for businesses and solutions to grow in an entrepreneurship-spirited environment through the support of coaching, technical expertise, access to research and data, partnerships, preparation for investment and, in some cases, direct funding. The three state programs have supported 187 participants since launch, including businesses, nonprofits and local governments.

Among these projects, NextCycle uses two broad approaches that help advance circularity:

1. Scales current solutions through the majority and laggard audiences;

2. Drives innovative approaches for early adoption to complement current systems.



As it currently stands, recycling of materials like paper, cans and bottles spans the diffusion of innovation scale as the most widely known, adopted and even resisted system. However, disposal through landfilling remains the most ubiquitous materials management strategy because some communities remain without access to basic levels of recycling, and efforts to establish recycling programs can be faced with doubts. For those audiences, implementing basic recycling access remains an innovative solution while other circular economy solutions are more foreign. 

Communities that do have access to general recycling, however, are more likely to have adopted additional programs to capture other waste streams, such as mattresses, electronics, paints, food waste and so much more. Even further, the communities with comprehensive access to a broad range of recycling and compost opportunities are likely to adopt new models for reuse and repair, getting them closer to a more comprehensive circular economy. This demonstrates the evolution of circular economy ideas and the relationship between more established ideas, such as recycling, and more novel ideas, such as reuse, including how they can support each other in progressing through the stages of adoption.


Early on, new ideas, whether the recycling of few basic materials, broader recycling of many materials, or adoption of reuse programs, will reach only a small percentage of people. But over time, audiences will be more likely to adopt new ideas related to sustainable materials management as a phased approach, starting with initial exposure to certain solutions that have graduated beyond early adopters. In other words, communities are more likely to pursue expanded recycling if they have successfully adopted basic recycling and likewise are more likely to adopt reuse strategies if they have broadly adopted recycling as a strategy for managing waste.

In Michigan, the City of Ann Arbor has exemplified this concept. In 1971, it was one of the first cities to launch a curbside recycling program in the United States, starting with just a pilot program and growing to a comprehensive program that accepts food scraps curbside, provides a drop-off site for hard-to-recycle materials, has an office of sustainability, develops pilots for zero waste and reusables and more. 

Similar stories stand out across communities in the United States that have built a culture around recycling over the past few decades. San Francisco now has ordinances requiring events to use reusable food service items; Portland, Oregon, has established a deconstruction ordinance; and Reuse Seattle is leading the way in best practices for a circular economy. 

The looming urgency to shift to a circular economy puts pressure on the adoption of existing and emerging solutions, but the ideal and immediate rollout of comprehensive solutions all at once is unrealistic if any part of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory stands true. The theory indicates that well-known, familiar and basic solutions are most likely to reach the most people—and for this conversation, the most amount of “waste” materials. Currently, capturing large volumes of “waste” is crucial to reducing pollution and mitigating climate impacts. While still working to “turn off the faucet” of overconsumption and waste, recycling and similarly established solutions need continuous expansion. These solutions act as the first phase of building a circular economy helping capture current waste materials and will help prepare the general population for adoption of the new ideas emerging in the circular economy. 

Innovators and early adopters constructively interpret flaws in the recycling system and strive to implement solutions. Within recycling itself, the working systems need to improve where widely adopted and reach additional audiences. In many cases industry innovators and early adopters are demonstrating known solutions to these challenges. A variety of businesses and projects supported through NextCycle programs work toward scaling these known solutions:

My Green Michigan

This growing company in the organic industry focuses on supporting collection of food scraps for restaurants, academic institutions and other businesses. In many cases, recycling conversations overlap with organics recovery. Food waste is a low-hanging and crucial material to collect

, which makes this business model an important solution to scale. 

The City of Eaton Rapids

The Michigan city, in collaboration with surrounding local units of government, received support through NextCycle Michigan to scale improvements for recycling collection. The group envisioned a staffed drive-through structure for drop-off of residential recyclables coupled with a comprehensive center for bulky and hard-to-recycle materials. This is a basic level of access that needs to scale to support the recovery of materials. 


Focused on improving the sorting and recovery of recyclables, this NextCycle participant brings an innovative technology approach utilizing AI-enabled robots to improve sorting at MRFs. This type of solution works to improve existing recycling systems. 


The circular economy embodies a vision for the transformation of the supply chain and consumption habits necessary toaddress the effects of the overconsumption and waste crisis, including from climate change and ocean plastics. While recycling plays an important role, it cannot be expected to be a stand-alone solution. Innovation and adoption of new ideas is pivotal to a circular future. The innovations needed to complete the vision of circularity revolve around an inclusive concept of the re-revolution: early adoption followed by implementation and scaling of all re-strategies including reduction, reuse, repair, remanufacturing and redesign. 

At its core, the circular economy is focused on eliminating the concept of waste while extending the useful life of materials and goods, reducing the need to extract raw materials from the earth and regenerating Earth’s biological cycles. The majority of social and environmental impacts associated with a given product or package can be attributed to the initial resource extraction and production cycle, with lesser, though still meaningful, impacts attributed to the end of life. As part of a circular economy, recycling is undeniably part of closing the loop at the end-of-life, ideally resulting in a future-life, as a substitute for raw inputs. However, by looking upstream at a material’s journey before its end of life we can break the extractive cycle.

Brands and industries are uniquely positioned to have an impact on this cycle and while the Diffusion of Innovation Theory is still going to apply based on the solution brands adopt, the overall impact and pace depends on the influence and scale of brands.

While recycling may be an entry point for the general public, it is more important for brands to start by reducing unnecessary products and designing goods for a long useful life with pathways for reuse, repair and remanufacturing. Many brands have skipped these steps and defaulted to one of the last stages of the circular economy—recycling—with increased commitments for recycled content, recycling of waste products and other low-hanging solutions. 

Although those commitments play an important role, they cannot be the stopping point. In order to push the boundaries of systemic changes, brands need to be bold as they lead the way in looking upstream to change how we think about and interact with products. 

Brands drive which products and goods are used by consumers. In the same way brands and industry drove the adoption of single-use goods and launched us into a system with planned obsolescence, brands can just as easily drive a more mindful and beneficial adoption of sustainable and circular goods. 

As the products and goods we use are reconsidered there is an important need for collaboration. If brands work in silos, each individually produc

ing well-intended products that are not compatible or enter a system unprepared to recirculate those products, they risk creating more waste. 

Take for example refillable deodorant options. Multiple brands produce refillable deodorant holders each with a different exterior design, different refill design and different deodorant recipes. If the products are not compatible with the consumer—whether the deodorant holder poses an accessibility challenge or the deodorant recipe causes an allergic reaction or any other reason—they are now waste to that consumer. However, if brands worked collaboratively to establish a standardized refill package it could help consumers find their best fit and reduce the potential waste, while maintaining brand identity both through exterior design and deodorant recipes. 

While this example focuses on brand-to-brand collaboration, it is also important to have collaboration across the supply chain. Continuing with the refillable deodorant comparison, the products’ design also needs to consider the end of life. Can the exterior or refill be recycled? Are those products getting tested through recycling facilities to

 ensure they get captured? Are any of the components compostable? Are they commercially compostable or backyard compostable? These are just a handful of questions that brands also need to consider since even products with extended useful lives will need to be thrown away eventually. Collaboratively and holistically designing products poisitions brands to lead the phaseout of the goods currently contributing to our consumption-driven and wasteful lifestyles and introduce products that support a circular economy. 

Some longtime activists and professionals likely feel the itch to skip to the full adoption of solutions for the re-revolution, but adoption of these types of ideas will depend on the audience and may happen in phases as ideas follow the innovation of diffusion scale. This is all the more reason for immediate action and implementation. The sooner these ideas can be socialized and scaled at an industry level, the sooner they can reach more people and reduce more waste. Some of these solutions have been supported by NextCycle including:


Kadeya’s patent-pending bottled-water kiosks combine a water testing and filtration system, a bottle sterilization mechanism and collection of data regarding local water quality and use of the kiosk. Customers receive a reusable glass or steel bottle of chilled, purified local water with a small fraction of the carbon footprint of single-use bottled water tran

sported over long distances. NextCycle prioritizes support for projects like these to encourage reduction of waste and reuse of materials with the added benefit of health through hydration. 

OKAPI Reusables

OKAPI is a reusable cup network that provides cafés an easy way to offer reusable cups to-go. It’s low-risk and easy to join, for both cafés and customers. The cups are high-quality stainless steel for hot drinks and durable, tempered glass for cold drinks (iced coffee, cold brew, smoothies and bubble tea). Customers use the OKAPI mobile app to borrow and return cups. 

Deliver Zero 

This is a tech-driven, scalable reusable takeout container service that stops plastic waste at the source. It partners with restaurants to stock them with re

usable containers so that diners can order their takeout and delivery in reusable, rather than single-use containers. 


An important detail to address is defining the “we” referenced throughout this article. Who should be responsible for driving a circular economy? Who needs to be figuring out new systems to reduce the amount of raw materials we use? Who amplifies the implementation of reusable models? What voices are at the table for driving change? And, especially, who is impacted? 

This point requires a brief callback to the opening paragraph, which states, “As experts, professionals, industries, brands and governments work to build a circular economy….” This statement intentionally excludes consumers. Brands and governments are in a position of power, and they have a variety of tools and solutions that can dramatically change the progress and landscape of the circular economy. 

While consumers are still an important part of the system and impacted by shortfalls of mismanaged industries, the responsibility for building a circular economy cannot solely rely on them but needs to strategically bring them along with it. This includes bringing community voices—the voices that are often overlooked—to the table for holistic impact. 

Industries and management of waste have historically contributed to environmental justice issues, threatened worker safety, polluted communities and have been linked to other unforeseen and often ignored consequences. Whether we look at fossil fuel refineries that support the plastics industry or landfills primarily located in Black neighborhoods, there is an undeniable need to ensure that people who may be vulnerable are brought to the decision-making table to avoid detrimental impacts to their communities. Bringing together

experts, community voices, workforces and leaders to inform solutions is crucial to accelerating effective adoption and ensuring solutions are comprehensive. 

“We” is also collective, because wherever a brand, professional or consumer is in the supply chain, there is a universal component of materials and waste involved that we all touch, and we have a universal opportunity to be part of the solutions. Systemic changes require solutions across sectors, with a call to action for everyone to do their part. The figure above exemplifies some known solutions that work to support a circular economy based on different audiences. As this demonstrates, the variety of solutions and their impact primarily depend on brands and governments, which consumers are eventually part of, and when products and goods are ready for reuse, repair, recycling or landfill. 

Aligning with the holistic solutions needed, NextCycle has 

supported a variety of community-driven projects with missions and impact that go beyond merely reducing waste or reusing 


Refugee Artisan Initiative 

At its core, the Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI) partners with refugee and immigrant women to foster an inclusive, prosperous transition to the United States through 

artisan skills training and micro-business development. 

As part of their skills training, RAI recovers scrap textiles 

to turn into new products while creating jobs for refugee women. NextCycle specifically supported RAI in recovering waste firehoses for a new life. 


SEEDS is a Michigan environmental nonprofit that centers on community engagement and education. One effort the team is leading is to catalyze a regional food waste recovery network in Northwest Michigan. NextCycle supported SEEDS in optimizing its community-scale food waste drop-off model, which can be replicated across the region. 

South King Tool Library

The South King Tool Library lends out tools and equipment and hosts other programs centered on waste reduction and circular economy. Participation is free and open to anyone in the region. Designed around building community, the model reduces the burden of purchasing, storing and maintaining tools. 


With solutions needed across industries and the supply chain, there is a place for everyone to do their part. We need to work toward reusable packaging. We need to perform life cycle assessments to understand the real impact. We need to educate peers and communities to support an overall culture shift that is needed as part of transitioning to a circular economy. 

Programs like NextCycle are crucial to supporting the scaling of known solutions and accelerating viable and innovative ideas that can start to influence audiences across the diffusion of innovation scale. NextCycle prioritizes partnerships and collaboration as part of the driving solutions needed to bring effective, holistic and impactful solutions to the table. 

As part of the progression of innovation, new and improved systems often substitute for another system. In this case, circularity is a substitute for linear. Within that there are various substitutes for different aspects of that system: recycling is a substitute for trash; Reuse is a substitute for buying a new product; Recycled content is a substitute for virgin inputs. These innovations can align and complement each other to collectively compete with the linear model. These solutions each have an important role and don’t need to compete with one another; in fact, they will be more effective in shifting a system when considered together as complements. Eventually, new innovations may, in turn, replace some of these solutions, but at this stage, we need all these systems to be part of building a circular economy and supporting a shift towards a low-waste and regenerative future. 

Learn more about NextCycle programs and be part of driving change toward a circular economy at recycle.com/nextcycle.

Keira Higgins is a consultant with Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) and part of the team driving NextCycle, an innovative approach to accelerate solutions for a circular economy. She has experience supporting zero-waste initiatives, coordinating collaborative events, working on community projects and performing technical and analytical work. Keira can be contacted at [email protected].

This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.