The business world is starting to recognise that recovery and reuse of resources in efficient circular business models, as an alternative to the using-up of virgin resources, is a major opportunity. Whether it is the flow of materials, component parts or entire products, circular principles allows us to make and do more with less, and offer the potential to reduce (or even reverse) the negative environmental impacts of our economic activity.
Green Angel Syndicate has already invested in two circular business companies, Alusid and BuyMeOnce, and is close to completing a third, Smile Plastics.
BuyMeOnce is a first-of-its-kind shopping and consumer information web site, focussed on reducing waste by celebrating and promoting products that are built to last. All three businesses are great examples of how to capitalise on the central tenet of the circular economy, to ‘design out waste’.
Green Angel Syndicate is not alone in seeing the potential of this sector. Circularity Capital, the specialist circular economy investment firm, announced in January that it has raised £60M in equity investment for its first fund to support circular SME businesses with potential to grow to scale. Waste to product is one of the models it identifies, specifically, up-cycling waste material flows into high value products.
The big brands are increasingly getting in on the act too, keen to market their sustainability credentials through waste recovery and recycling initiatives, very often around plastic materials. For example, Adidas is currently trialling prototypes of a training shoe made of a single recyclable material, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), meaning that at the end of its life the plastic can be ground up into pellets and reused to make more shoes. Renault has initiated a project to establish a closed loop for plastics within the local automotive industry, with the result that 20% of the plastic in the new Espace is recycled material (Ellen McArthur Foundation). IKEA has been exploring ways in which it can make use of its own plastic packaging waste as a resource since 2016. Its first ‘trash to treasure’ products made with the new material (named SKRUTT, Swedish for scrap) include a desk protector, spray bottles and a doormat.
Beyond green marketing, it is interesting to note how the effects of changing consumer attitudes are slowly being recognised more widely across markets and through supply chains. In 2016 McKinsey calculated the value of plastic disposed of after a single use as $80-120bn / year. Now, according to Seema Scuchak of asset manager Schroders, the large plastic packaging manufacturers are likely to see their profits fall by 11-33% in the medium term if they continue to rely on virgin plastics rather than recycled materials (The Economist, July 27th 2019).
Figure 1 - The ChemCycling Plastic Waste to Raw Materials Cycle
The company says the process is suitable for use with mixed and contaminated plastics, typical of the kind of household and other post-consumer waste streams that are currently difficult to recycle using mechanical methods. BASF is already working on ChemCycling projects with packaging producers and manufacturers including Jaguar Land Rover and Schneider Electric (BASF, 2019).
Resources, circularity and climate change
BASF’s fact sheet doesn’t give any details on how energy intensive its chemical recycling process is. However, there is evidence that as a general principle, making goods from recycled materials generates less greenhouse gas emissions than when they are made using virgin resources.
Circularity Gap, a report published at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year highlighted the potential that circular strategies have to make a major contribution to climate change targets (Circle Economy, 2019). And in the first detailed study of its kind published in 2015, researchers at Southampton University found that with the exceptions of soil, plasterboard, and paint, the recycling of all the source-segregated waste materials they looked at resulted in net green house gas emissions savings. For example, using recycled aluminium saves more than 80% CO2 emissions (CO2e) compared with use of virgin stock. Plastics, including PET, HPDE, PVC, LPDE and PP also offer significant CO2e savings, as do many other widely used materials including scrap metals, glass, paper and board (Fig 2). (Turner et al, 2015).
Figure 2 - CO2 Emissions savings from recycling source-segregated materials
Source: Turner et al, 2015
Smile Plastics and Alusid both use low energy processes to create their products. Their feedstock is from waste streams that would otherwise be sent to landfill or down-cycled in low value applications. As a result, both businesses produce high value product with a much lower impact on the environment than traditional manufacturers.
A life less throw-away
As well as the waste to product model, Circularity Gap identifies product life extension as having an important contribution to make to resource efficiency and climate change.
The most obvious way to extend product lifetime is to build them better. Product durability is the focus of BuyMeOnce, the on-line retail business that champions ‘a life less throw-away’ by seeking out the most long-lasting products on the planet.
“Durability is the most overlooked solution to climate change,” says Tara, “A huge amount of focus has been on recycling, but most people have not stopped to make the connection that when people keep their products for longer, fewer new products need to be produced and therefore fewer resources and less energy needs to be consumed.”
Substance and style
If the temptation is to think that the drive to design out waste might lead to a compromise on style, then think again. Actually, the opposite it true. In these new businesses, engineers, designers and retailers understand the value and the beauty that lies in these underused waste streams.
“Our mission is to change people’s perceptions around waste – to use art and technology to unlock the hidden potential in recycling and open their eyes to the unexpected beauty of scrap. In doing so, we hope to inspire more people about sustainability and recycling,” say Smile Plastics founders Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan.
The materials they produce have inspired designers around the world. Their unique decorative panels feature in flagship commercial installations, including Selfridges, the Lyan Club (Hoxton) and The Welcome Trust, as well as private homes.
Similarly, Alusid’s high quality tiles and solid surfaces are nothing if not beautiful. “Our strategy has always been that customers will not buy a product just because it is greener but because it is of premium quality as well as being sustainable,” says Dr Alasdair Bremner, co-Founder of Alusid. Their handmade glazed Sequel tiles, launched at Clerkenwell Design Week in May are now available through Parkside, the commercial arm of Topps Tiles.
Ethical and valuable
Defra calculates that UK businesses could benefit by up to £23 billion per year through improvements in the efficient use of resources (WRAP). While some may think that figure is optimistically high, we see signs of transformation popping up across supply chains in all sectors from sporting goods and the automotive industry to architecture, design and retail, and Green Angel Syndicate is proud to back some of the most exciting innovators leading the way forward.
Circularity Capital, Circularity Capital closes debut fund