By Olivia Offutt, CRB Student Advisory Board & MDP ’18

It was 4 o’clock and the forum was wrapping up. Whiteboard walls in the breakout rooms were scrawled with brightly colored marker, tables were covered in post-its and sharpies, and the warehouse like room was filled with energetic discussion. The innovative energy wouldn’t seem out of place in the Bay, home to countless tech companies, but it might seem out of place for the topic of the day’s events: flexible film recycling.

Yes, flexible film, the transparent crinkly plastic that packages products  like toilet paper, underwear 3-packs, and iPhone cases. When you come home from Target and put away your bought items, throwing out the plastic wrap might be the most uninspiring part of the experience. But for the participants at this forum, representing the flexible film value chain from film producers to consumer package goods (CPG) companies to film recycling nonprofits, plastic wrap represents a dizzying array of challenges and opportunities.

In a nutshell, plastic wrap is currently the cheapest and most energy efficient way to package certain products securely and cleanly, so it is widely used by CPG companies. However it largely can’t be recycled curbside, the infrastructure for recycling film is widely unknown and underutilized, and the market for recycled film is still nascent. A film producer, a CPG company, and a municipal recycler will all have a different perspective on this situation, but the high level question remains: what needs to happen to keep flexible film out of landfills?

Kimberly-Clark, parent company to CPG brands like Kleenex and Huggies and a longtime corporate partner of the CRB, understood the complexity of the challenge and last year asked the CRB to write a case study with the goal of ultimately convening a collaborative forum to “live solve” the issue. In the workspace of the Haas Innovation Lab and with the inspiring facilitation of design thinking experts, Dr. Sara Beckman and Dr. Michael Barry from Berkeley and Stanford respectively, the forum held in early May turned the flexible film recycling challenge into an intimate, engaging, and creative experience for approximately 40 participants from across the country.  

The day’s events were organized to first build group awareness of the many ways stakeholders and consumers understand, see, and work with flexible film.  A presentation led by Dr. Beckman highlighted the patterns of consumer behavior and attitudes towards recycling and flexible film. Essentially, the more barriers erected to recycle film (for example, bringing it to grocery store collections), the less likely people are to bother, and cash or coupon incentives are unlikely to change this significantly.  

A panel of stakeholders engaged in innovative film recycling efforts shed light on other aspects of the flexible film recycling challenge. One focused on investment efforts to build recycled film demand and another focused on developing a design strategy that enables film to go directly into the normal recycling bin.  The 3rd and 4th panelists brought consumer education perspectives focused on public campaigns and clear labeling strategies.  These experiences allowed the forum participants to see themselves as actors within a complex and adapting system that shifts and responds to other actors and, of course, consumers.

The forum then aimed to build an appreciation for the process of creative problem solving. Dr. Barry led two fascinating and participatory sessions on behavior change and design thinking, each asking the forum participants to go beyond the obvious components of what the components are and how they work (use and usability), but also to explore why these components have meaning.

The main event of the day was a three hour block dedicated to putting this new knowledge to work in small breakout groups.  Six teams were created, with each comprised of a diverse group of about six stakeholders. Each team was armed with a whiteboard room, markers, and a stack of post it notes, and asked to prototype a solution for addressing the challenge of recycling flexible film.

The three hours flew by. Animated chatter filled the room and white boards were filled up quickly with marker and post its. The messages from the morning panels and presentations shone through in each team’s proposed solutions, as they each adopted a systemic multi-stakeholder approach and highlighted the balance between use, usability, and meaning. One solution outlined a strategy of incentivizing recycling collections by rewarding the community with, for example, a playground made out of recycled materials. Another one developed the idea of a multi-stakeholder coalition that invests in regional level recycling solutions.

After our breakout sessions, the concluding speaker came to the front of the room and quipped, “things were a lot simpler before I came [here].” The room responded with a knowing laugh. It was true. Suddenly flexible film, this ubiquitous, simple, forgettable material, was the protagonist in a perplexing story with a revolving door of characters involved in all parts of the recycling narrative. While trying to process the complexity was overwhelming, the exercise of absorbing this narrative and probing for ways to shape it still left me inspired.  On one level, this forum allowed the stakeholders an opportunity to grapple with a shared challenge in a collaborative way and enabled people to return to work with fresh ideas and new networks.  However, on a deeper level, this forum provided a meaningful lesson in addressing any challenge. It provided us with a model (use, usability, and meaning) to intentionally zoom out and find the “whys” instead of focusing on the “whats.”  

Kimberly-Clark and the Center for Responsible Business are currently working together to craft a follow up “B” version of the case study, highlighting how Kimberly-Clark is moving forward with its flexible film recycling challenge as a result of this event. I applaud Kimberly-Clark for having the inspiration and vision to develop this amazing collaborative event.  I am likewise impressed by their dedication to follow up on the forum with actionable plans and very much look forward to seeing how this event inspires their future recycling strategies.

Olivia is a graduate student at the Masters of Development Practice program, where she is currently engaged in economic development and equitable finance projects such as impact bonds in Central America and insurance liberalization in Myanmar. She is on the Student Advisory Board for the Center for Responsible Business.

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