.Going in (Good) Circles With CirFin and the City of Cupertino

What if the moment a car—or an iPhone, or a couch—left the lot it increased in value, rather than decreased? What if plastic forks were things of the past? Fifteen-year-old Cupertino resident Aaryan Doshi and the city of Cupertino think that both can be true. One proposition is closer than the other in coming to fruition. Both ride on the principles of a circular economy.

Doshi’s project, CirFin, recently won $15,000 at the Prudential Emerging Visionaries Summit. CirFin is a curriculum which combines circular economic principles and financial technologies to address environmental concerns. Doshi’s win represents the second time in two years that a South Bay youth leader has received the grand prize winnings in this nationwide summit.

“So, you have the ‘Cir’ for circular economy, and then the ‘Fin’ for financial technologies,” Doshi explains.

A circular economy rejects the idea that once a product is produced, it heads in a straight path toward the landfill. Undoing this linearity—and encouraging the reuse of a product—is key in increasing the value of a product over the course of its lifetime.

Reuse of a product “theoretically means its value should go up,” Doshi says. “The longer I own the product, the longer it’s been in circulation, the more value it has, because it hasn’t ended up in our landfills. And then we’re not having to go and manufacture more products.”

“Theoretically” is the key word here. Financial technology is how Doshi envisions adding value to reused goods in the real world.

Financial technology encompasses the software, apps and other innovations to facilitate financial exchange. PayPal and Venmo are kinds of financial technology. Cryptocurrency and blockchain are others. Blockchain allows for exchange between individuals without the involvement of a bank.

“Normally, when we have to exchange something, we go to the bank, right? But blockchain allows us to facilitate that sort of transaction [as a] simple peer-to-peer exchange. The beauty of it is it can take part between everyone in the population.”

This peer-to-peer exchange must then gain meaning within our current economy. Doshi gives an example of the exchange of iPhones and the creation of a sustainability credit.

“Let’s say I want to buy a new phone. And, sometime in the future, Apple mandates that I not only purchase the phone with money, but that I also purchase the phone with some sort of sustainable credit. But I have a relatively new iPhone. That’s not going to buy me my sustainable credit. My friend, on the other hand, he has a really old model of a phone. What blockchain allows us to do is a peer-to-peer exchange. I get credit for him for his old iPhone. Then, because [I’ve purchased] sustainable credit from him, I’m now able to go to Apple and buy that phone.”

Doshi says that creating these incentives will require mandates at the manufacturer and governmental levels. Trade-ins, an already familiar incentive for recirculating goods, are a step in the right direction, but the process, says Doshi, could be improved.

“Many [trade-in] items end up in e-waste,” Doshi says. “If you analyze an iPhone, yes, there are some parts that get reused by Apple as they’re manufacturing the product. But what we don’t see is people exchanging their old phone with someone else. It’s basically out of the cycle once they give it to these companies. It’s not really in that circular economy loop.”

Doshi feels like, of all places, Silicon Valley should be the epicenter of innovations like digital product passports—a way to track the lifecycle of individual products—as well as the peer-to-peer sustainability credit.

“We think of it as a technology hub, and really the heartbeat of innovation, right? We see all these phones, computers, chips, that really epitomize innovation and progress. But even in a place so advanced as Silicon Valley we still see there are problems in terms of innovating not only for the people, but innovating for the planet.”

The city of Cupertino—home to both Doshi and Apple’s corporate headquarters—is promoting the transition to a circular economy in its own way. 

Victoria Morin is the outreach coordinator of the city’s Sustainability and Environmental Programs. She is very busy, managing everything from “waste management to greenhouse gases, alternative transportation, to storm water pollution prevention. I talk with people and promote positive behavior change. I create policies and programs to help those behavior changes.”

The city gets guidance in creating positive behavioral changes from state and assembly bills such as SB 1383: Reducing Short-Lived Climate Pollutants in California. This bill informed the three zero-waste measures in Cupertino’s Climate Action Plan 2.0 to ultimately reduce all landfilled waste by 90% by 2040.

Each of these measures has associated action items, such as promoting extended producer responsibility takeback programs, creating an upcycle/resale shop and partnering with other organizations to facilitate repair cafes for commonly broken items, like the volunteer-run Repair Café in Mountain View.

Also as mandated by SB 1383, Cupertino is moving towards green purchasing for the municipality.

“For example,” Morin says, “our printer paper has to be a hundred percent recycled content. And then it also states that it has to be recyclable. Right. So this is where you get into the circular approach because we’re buying paper that has been recycled and it has to be recycled after we use it.”

SB 1383 extends to materials such as the wood from construction demolition—all of which needs to be composted.

Cupertino is also implementing AB 1276: Single Use Foodware Accessories and Condiments, which states that restaurants must provide utensils and condiments only upon request. Cupertino has gone further and will require, come September of this year, the use of durable, reusable dinnerware for in-house dining, along with a ban on single-use plastics. To help with this switch, Cupertino is sponsoring a refund program and an expo on Earth-friendly disposables.

“Any restaurant in Cupertino that is making the switch can get a refund if they have to purchase new reusables or a dishwasher. So we help them with their behavior change to make this implementation. We’re also having a mini expo this summer to help the restaurants learn about their different options for to-go containers and things like that where vendors actually come and show off the types of products that they can switch to,” she explains.

These institutional changes make for a more circular economy at the consumer level.

“By helping the restaurant make these changes, then we’re indirectly having the consumer have no other choice but to be more circular,” Morin says.

When asked if Cupertino would be open to working with CirFin, Morin emphasizes the city’s ability to build partnerships.

“If we can support an organization by just talking with them and helping learn what they’re struggling to implement, if we can help and we can partner with them, we typically do.”

Aaryan Doshi is keen on partnerships, too, and holds them as essential in elevating and popularizing CirFin to mandate-encouraging proportions. Currently, CirFin is working on its outreach at local schools, libraries, and via its website at cirfin.org.

“Who knows what the future has in store for us. We never just turn down people. We’re very open to ideas,” Morin says.

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