Definition of the circular economy

In the natural world most systems function in a circular model. A plant grows using energy from the sun, water and nutrients from the soil, this plant is consumed by an animal, which in turn is consumed by another animal and eventually the animal at the top of the food chain dies and all the nutrients are returned to the soil to be used by a new plant. This circular system has worked for millions of years.

However, in more recent times, humans have developed a more linear approach to life. Taking resources, making things with them and then disposing of them in various ways. Examples could include single-use plastic bottles that end up in a landfill site or unwanted electronics that we throw away when a new shiny model is released. This has allowed us to rapidly grow global economies and living standards….but it comes at a cost.

These resources are finite, meaning that they will eventually all run out. But on top of that, this linear model leads to many detrimental effects on the environment, whether that is plastics in the oceans, toxic chemicals in landfills or greenhouse gases released from burning fossil fuels.

So to stop these impacts and to mitigate the risk of running out of resources completely, we need to mirror natural processes more closely and move towards a circular model. This is where the term ‘circular economy comes from’.

Below is a list of some of the more innovative and exciting examples of circular economy solutions that could have positive impacts on the environment:

1) Circular Economy clothing

The fashion industry is beginning to cause many environmental problems and a big part of the reason for that is the linear model of the ‘fast fashion’ industry.

The aim of the fast fashion industry is to get consumers to constantly want to buy the latest styles and trends of clothing at cheap prices, creating the feel of disposable clothes. So when one cheap dress or shirt is no longer cool after a few months, people have no problem with throwing away last months rags and buying the next hip item for a tiny price.

It is estimated that one garbage truck full of clothes is sent to landfill or burnt every single second. This has led some to estimate that if the current trend towards fast fashion continues, one quarter of total climate change contributions will be due to clothing by 2050 (Harrabin, 2018). 

Environmental impacts of producing new clothing range from land-use change and inputs for growing cotton, to the high energy and toxic chemical requirements in manufacturing.

So we need to move towards a circular economy model for clothing. The first option is the simplest and that is to buy and sell clothing on the second-hand market, this is the simplest way to prevent clothing reaching landfill and to reduce the pressure caused by manufacturing new products.

But there will always be a desire from people for the latest fashion and trends and clothing does eventually wear out and become unusable.

This has lead to companies such as Rapanui, a t-shirt brand based on the Isle of Wight in the UK to produce a range of circular economy t-shirts.

The idea is that you buy one t-shirt from them but this same t-shirt can be sent back and the material re-used to produce a new one at a reduced cost. This can’t be done with any products as a lot of modern-day fashion contains materials such as plastics that are tricky to recycle but it can be done if this is the goal from the start.

Although there is still some energy input in the recycling process, Rapanui use renewable energy in the factories to keep impacts as low as possible. The much more important factor is the clothes don’t end up in landfill and the need for new cotton and other materials is reduced.

I interviewed one of the two brothers who founded the company in Episode 19 of the podcast, click below to listen or find it on all podcast platforms.

2) Animal feed from human waste

The best circular economy ideas are the ones that tackle multiple environmental issues at once.

In lesser economically developed countries the issue of waste from humans and animals is still an everyday problem. A lack of proper sewerage networks in ever expanding cities means waste can end up in rivers and streams and can end up contaminating drinking water leading to the spread of life threatening disease. 

A way is needed to stop this linear model of consumption of food and then waste not being processed and ending up in water supplies. But to install sewer systems in many of these places is simply not practical and even then the waste must still be processed which requires high amounts of energy. So scientists have looked to biology instead.

Step up the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and more importantly it’s larvae. These larvae have an immense appetite for organic material and don’t care if that organic material happens to be human or animal excrement!

But the circle does not stop there, once the larvae have broken down and consumed the organic waste they can be dried out and used as animal feed for fish, livestock and poultry. This reduces the environmental impacts caused by growing food such as soy and corn for animals which takes large amounts of land, usually felled rainforest in the case of soy production.

On top of this, the larvae can even be consumed by humans. An unappetizing proposition to many, the dried larvae are perfectly safe to be eaten and contain high levels of protein.

There are several companies doing this process but one is Dutch-based startup MAWA. I interviewed Matt from the company in episode 3 of the podcast which you can listen to below.

3) Biodegradable plastics from paper industry waste

One company that prides itself on finding new circular economy models is Mobius. A start-up based in the USA whose slogan is ‘there’s wonder in waste’. They aim to find waste streams from other industries and find a use for them, turning as many linear models into circular ones as possible.

Their main circular model is to utilize a waste product from the paper industry called lignin. Lignin is the substance that forms the cell walls in trees and plants making them rigid and woody in structure. This is great for the survival of trees but useless in for the production of paper. However, the lignin has some valuable properties which make it great for other uses and one of those uses is a biodegradable plastic.

The plastic made can’t replace all single-use plastics as it lacks the strength, but it can replace a large amount of it.

One of the main sectors the biodegradable plastic is being utilized in is the horticultural industry to replace plastic ‘mulch films’ used to cover crops. In the past non-biodegradable single-use petroleum-based plastics have been used for this purpose all of which end up in landfill or burnt.

Mobius is an inspiring circular economy company and I interviewed the two founders in Episode 7 of the podcast, you can listen below.

4) Roads from plastics

Maksym Kozlenko [CC BY-SA 4.0]

One waste stream that we are all too familiar with these days are petroleum-based plastics. They are everywhere. If you look around your house virtually every modern item you see contains plastic in some form.

Until recently we have not been able (or willing) to re-use these plastics and after they are no longer needed we throw them away to end up in landfill. The problem is that many of those plastics don’t even reach landfill and instead end up in the oceans. Every minute the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastics enters the oceans and by 2050 it is estimated that will increase by ten times.

The main solution is to stop using so much plastic in the first place! But we must accept that it is such a useful material that it will be around for a while to come. One way to reduce the amount of plastics reaching the oceans or buried in landfill is to find another use for them and give them a second life.

Scottish based firm MacRebur has found a way to do this by using plastics to construct and repair roads.

Inspired by a trip to India where he saw people collecting plastic waste and melting it into potholes to repair roads, Toby McCartney brought the idea back to the UK and with his co-founders refined a method of taking waste plastic and making it into plastic granules that could be used to make roads.

5) Building with plastic bottles

Photo taken by Josephine Chan and Ian Christie. [CC BY 4.0]

Continuing on the theme of removing single-use plastics from the environment and preventing them from eventually ending up in the oceans are Ecobricks.

An Ecobrick is created by taking a used plastic bottle and packing it full of other plastic materials to form a dense brick. These bricks can be used in the same way as traditional bricks to build structures but at a much lower cost as the material is free.

Ecobricks accept that for now there is plastic everywhere and so it might as well be put to use. The technique makes use of the benefits of plastic, namely it’s durability, water tightness and the fact it won’t break down over time.

The Global Ecobrick Alliance also point to other benefits of Ecobricks such as raising awareness of the scale of our plastic habit in the almost meditative process of filling one of the bottles.

It also saves plastic from going to recycling plants which require a lot of energy and with every recycling cycle the chances of the plastic ending up in the biosphere are there. Finally, it reduces the emissions of CO2 and other harmful gases from burning plastics (one ton of incinerated plastic will release 0.9 Mt of net CO2).

Perhaps the best thing about Ecobricks though is how it is empowering communities in poorer parts of the world. The minimal cost and the fact they are so simple to make with no need for machinery means anyone can make them and build with them. In the city of Bontoc in the Philippines, the creation of Ecobricks was taken up by so many people that a local dump had to close as the reduction of waste was so high.

6) Utilizing the sharing economy

One of the major causes of our linear lifestyles is the fact that we are all obsessed with ownership. Owning our own car, our own appliances etc. But in recent years we have seen an increase in the number of sharing schemes where we put the idea of ownership aside and therefore greatly reduce many of the impacts on the environment.

The reason the sharing economy fits into a circular economy model is that most of the time it extends the time a product is used for but also it maximizes the use time over the life of the item.

If you imagine us all owning our own possessions, there are huge amounts of time where those items are sat about not being used. A recent study found that these days the average car spends 95% of it’s time parked, not being used. That is all that manufacturing energy and materials for not much use in the end.

Probably the most well known modern example of the sharing economy is Airbnb. This website and app allows home owners to share their property with other people when it is not in use. This has benefits for the environment as it reduces the number of hotels that need to be constructed and maintained. Other examples include sharing of office spaces, parking spaces and even appliances.

7) Fuel from spent coffee grounds

As a species we are obsessed with coffee, with 64% of Americans drinking at least one cup of coffee every day according to Reuters. But the process of creating a cup of coffee is fairly wasteful. Water is pushed through ground coffee beans to produce the hot liquid to drink, but that leaves the coffee grounds which end up in landfill contributing to greenhouse gas emissions such as methane along with our other food waste.

The company Bio-bean has decided to utilize this waste stream and create some useful products from it to extend the life of the coffee grounds further. One of these uses is to create pellets for use in biomass which they claim are carbon neutral and reduces the need for imported wood.  

8) Biodegradable coffee cups

Carrying on with the coffee theme and another big environmental problem that our coffee obsession has lead to is an increase in disposable plastic cups. In the UK alone 7 million disposable coffee cups are used every day!

There has been a big push to get people to take their own re-usable cups to coffee shops, with many retailers offering a discount if they do. But the reality is many people enjoy the convenience of grabbing a coffee or are too lazy to bother. We need a circular economy solution.

That solution could be in the form of biodegradable coffee cups. Companies such as Green Man Packaging have designed cups that they argue match the quality and function of a standard coffee cup but with one big bonus feature, that they are compostable. So once finished with, these cups will biodegrade, return to the soil and the circle is complete.

This is made possible by the fact the cups are made from waste materials from crop production such as natural starch from corn production and fibers from sugarcane production. This use of waste products from another industry makes this circular economy solution even better for the environment.

9) Fashion Accessories from landfill

Elvis and Kresse are a company giving a second life to discarded items and creating stylish fashion accessories in the process.

Some of the accessories they have produced include bags created from old firehoses they saved from landfill sites. Thanks to the company in over a decade none of London’s discarded firehoses have ended up in landfill.

This not only reduces the environmental impact from the discarded firehoses in landfill but reduces the impact of making new bags from materials such as leather.

10) Edible Cutlery

Over 40 billion single-use plastic utensils are used every single year worldwide. Ending up in landfill and oceans along with all our other plastics.

This has lead innovators to try and come up with a circular economy solution and once such a solution from Indian based startup ‘Bakeys’ is edible spoons.

The idea is that these vegan-friendly spoons made of rice, sorghum and wheat are tough and durable enough to withstand an entire meal of hot food without falling apart. But not only that, they flavored with cumin (for savory dishes) and sugar (for sweet dishes) making them entirely edible once finished with. This provides more calories and reduces the plastic waste from the plastic alternative.

But there is no obligation to eat the cutlery. If you are too full after your meal you can simple dispose of the spoon and it is fully biodegradable.

Bakeys hopes to expand their range from spoons to chopsticks, forks and knives in the near future whilst reducing the cost to make them competitive with the plastic alternatives.

11) Brewer’s waste grains to granola

Along with coffee, another liquid we are obsessed with is beer. And like with coffee the manufacturing process of beer produces waste products. One of these waste products is the spent brewer’s grains, the solid residue of malt left after brewing is finished.

The dutch company Instock have come up with a clever and nutritional use for these grains by using them to create granola. They do this by combining the grains with seeds, almonds, cinnamon and honey to create what they call a breakfast for heroes…..because who doesn’t want to start the day with a beer??

12) Farm waste into building material

Food production creates a lot of waste, waste which is often burned for energy. But Danish company GXN teamed up with some farming partners to try and utilize some of these waste products to build houses instead.

The team combined waste grass, straw, tomato stems and seaweed with a biobased liquid to form a wooden material that has the same properties as tropical hardwood along with a similar deep brown color to match.

Not only are they giving a second life to materials that would have ended up in landfill or incinerated, but they are also reducing the environmental impact of deforestation caused by a demand for tropical hardwoods.

A further environmental benefit that the manufacturers mention is the fact the construction sits on screw piles instead of a concrete slab, reducing the need for concrete which is a famously carbon-intensive material to produce.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer and podcast producer for The Disruptive Environmentalist. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.
Rob Wreglesworth
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