Our economy is traditionally linear. We live in a largely ‘take, make, waste’ culture. Take your old iphone or laptop. Worldwide, only about a fifth of electronic waste is recycled. Yet electronics contain valuable parts that can be extracted and reused. Globally, a third of all food produced is wasted, at an annual cost of nearly a trillion dollars. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that Britons throw away one out of every three bags of groceries. The circularity gap is widening. The Circularity Gap Report 2020 found that of all of the materials that enter the global economy every year, only 8.6% is captured and reused either directly or through avenues such as recycling or composting. Two years earlier it was 9%.
We are well over-due a change.
“Prosperity in a world of finite resources” – European environment commissioner Janez Potocnik
A circular economy requires a range of strategies. In a world where demand is growing, recycling alone cannot cover that demand. We need a range of strategies, some old such as reducing, reusing and recycling and some new such as renting rather than owning things. Building a circular economy will require huge cultural shift on the scale of the industrial revolution. But it’s important to remember that the circular economy is something to celebrate, it aims to adjust how we do things back into harmony with nature. In fact, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that the circular economy could save European businesses up to $630 billion dollars are year.
Let’s take a look at some of the companies who are helping to accelerate the shift towards a more circular economy.
Fuelled by the ‘David Attenborough effect’, companies are looking for more environmentally sustainable packaging options. There is no easy solution. Importantly, the carbon footprint of a material must be considered as well as its reusability or recyclability. While the supermarkets are looking into reusable or refillable options and reducing single use plastic, there are countless companies who are applying more divergent thinking and coming up with some innovative packaging solutions.
Reuseabox have launched their Reuseabox Model as an alternative to packing in newly manufactured cardboard boxes. They create supply chain solutions for used cardboard boxes. This not only reduces the amount of cardboard being recycled prematurely and the associated environmental impacts, it also creates low cost, sustainable packaging solutions for a range of businesses. You can check out their range of new and once used packaging here.
McDonalds and Starbucks have recently launched a pilot programme that will introduce two types of ‘smart’ reusable cups in independent coffee shops in San Francisco and Palo Alto, California. The cups are made mostly from plastic and outfitted with RFID chips or QR codes for tracking. Consumers simply drop the cups at certain collection sites. The chains are collaborating with reusable cup companies Muuse and CupClub.
Ecovative Design, an American startup has developed a way of making packaging using ground hemp or wood fibres which are ‘glued’ together with mushrooms. Unlike particleboard or fibreglass, the mushroom glue is non-toxic and the packaging can be composted when it is no longer needed. This has developed into products made from 100% mushroom and they are currently developing shoe soles and vegan leather.
Clothes that are kept in use and re-worn are better for the planet. Unfortunately fast fashion is having a huge impact here. In 2015 the world threw away more than $450 billion worth of clothes. There are companies that buy and re-sell used clothing but clothes that are poor quality can only be sold as wipe cloths or shredded for insulation or mattress stuffing.
One solution is renting rather than owning. Rent the Runway and other online rental companies are still in their infancy but they’re growing fast. Although renting adds to the packaging, shipping and cleaning of clothes, it is still considerably more sustainable than buying new ones.
Futuristic Sustainable Farming
A great example of how we can use waste as an asset is happening over in Germany. Pig farmer Doris Nienhaus has designed an industrial-scale solution to the problem of too much pig manure. Nitrates leaching from over fertilised fields have polluted groundwater in about a quarter of Germany. She persuaded 90 farmers to invest $8.4 million in a ground breaking new facility. Their farms’ manure is digested by microbes and the resulting biogas fuels a generator that powers the plant, with left over electricity to sell to the grid. The plant produces an ash that is 35% phosphorus, which is sold. No waste is produced.
In Newark, New Jersey, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm aims to grow vegetables sustainably all year round in the heart of cities. Vegetables are grown on a reusable substrate made from recycled plastic bottles. Water is misted on the roots from below, reducing what would be needed if grown outdoors by 95%. No pesticides are used and nutrients and fertilisers as applied only when needed. The lighting provides the specific wavelength required by the vegetables. The company says its yields are 390 times higher than farming in fields.
Building a circular economy will not happen over-night, but it’s encouraging to see the inspiring work being achieved by these businesses. For more information on reusable packaging that supports a circular economy contact: [email protected]