As the global population goes up, natural resources are being called upon at faster and faster rates to meet the needs of the people. It is critical to find more efficient ways of using the planet’s resources to maintain both environmental and economic sustainability.
The circular economy is a simple yet powerful concept wherein resource usage is redesigned into ways that maximise reuse and minimise waste and pollution. It goes beyond merely using recycled materials to rethinking the entire production chain to address broader issues of consumption and the environment.
Here are some ways in which industries are already tackling the sustainability question with the circular economy concept:
1. Deposit return schemes
About 1.4 trillion drink containers are manufactured each year. Most of these are made from high-quality material that can easily be recycled, and deposit return schemes enable that.
By adding an extra deposit amount to the price of the drink, consumers can be refunded the amount when they hand the container in for recycling, which often happens at a reverse vending machine that automates the collection and refund process.
This allows drink containers to be kept separate from other types of waste – a problem often faced in household recycling – and also incentivises consumers to dispose of their containers sustainably.
2. Anaerobic Digestion technology
After banning food waste from going to landfill, the Republic of Korea managed to recycle 95% of food waste into solid fuel, animal feed and biogas. The government also launched a mandatory food waste recycling program that encourages reuse and recycling of goods.
This effective elimination of food waste as a problem should encourage businesses around the world to invest in future-proof recycling technologies such as Anaerobic Digestion – a process in which the food waste is consumed by microorganisms in an oxygen-less environment.
A by-product of this is the production of biogas which can be used to convert to electricity or for heating and a range of other power generating opportunities.
This technology is beneficial to supermarkets and food manufacturers who can sustainably dispose of their surplus food, with little investment.
3. Recycled household product packaging
Household cleaning brand Method makes its new packaging from old plastic bottles, most of which are collected from the ocean by volunteers in Hawaii. They recycle or reuse 99% of their waste by avoiding hard-to-recycle production materials and by increasing their composting and recycling facilities.
They also make sure that the ingredients that make up their cleaning products are biodegradable and do not harm waterways.
At their Chicago factory, moreover, they have a 75000 sq ft greenhouse that is used to provide an annual 500 tons of pesticide-free produce for local restaurants and the surrounding communities.
4. Zero-waste dining
Around one-third of the food produced globally each year is thrown out or lost. To save edible food, Scandinavian start-up Too Good To Go has an app that connects grocery stores and restaurants in more than ten countries with consumers who are willing to ‘rescue’ perishable food supplies at closing time for a discounted price.
In Amsterdam Noord, Cafe de Ceuvel merges nature and technology to provide a uniquely sustainable experience. It is built out of secondhand building materials atop polluted soil and cultivates plants that absorb these pollutants through their roots.
The surrounding area features showrooms and coworking spaces made from old discarded boats and the cafe is fuelled by solar power. They even filter the wastewater from kitchen sinks with plants and recycle the contents of toilets into fertiliser for growing food.
Essentially, they are applying the circular economy concept to their entire ecosystem to close resource loops and extract value from waste.
5. Sustainable jeans
In 2013, fashion start-up MUD Jeans introduced a way of making jeans 100% recyclable – by leasing jeans to customers instead of selling them. This allows MUD to keep the jeans within their manufacturing cycle so that they can take back a pair whenever the customer wishes to return them and convert the pair into vintage jeans or yarn for a fresh pair of jeans.
They also recycle 95% of their wastewater and use less harmful dyes when manufacturing jeans. MUD has taken on the role of both manufacturer and recycler to extend their responsibility towards what they make and to promote more sustainable fashion.
6. Donation of excess food supplies
7. Multi-purpose sugar production
British Sugar in Norfolk supplies 420,000 tons of sugar each year from the beets grown in east England – also, they sell 12 products ranging from chemicals to food, all derived during the manufacturing process.
The factory receives about three million beets annually that must be cleaned before production begins, and British Sugar sells the dirt and stone gathered in the process for other industrial purposes at about 150,000 tons a year.
Their Wissington facility also houses the UK’s first bioethanol fuel plant, which produces around 55,000 tons of renewable fuel from sugar syrup.
Their other by-products include liming products for organic food production, tomatoes cultivated in greenhouses powered by the surplus heat and CO2 from the sugar plant, and chemicals derived from beet sugar that are used as fish feed.
As a company with a strong understanding of material and energy flows, British Sugar aims to make the most of all its resources by converting its by-products into new products and processes rather than discarding them as waste.