The circular economy is about connecting waste flows with processes and applications that can put that waste to new uses, helping to reduce both waste sent to landfills and the consumption of finite natural resources. These 10 companies come from all around the world and represent a variety of sectors, but they are all finding unique and profitable ways to help grow the global circular economy and reduce their environmental impact:
A report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation on the textile industry found that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles and clothing is landfilled or burned every second and only 1 percent of clothing is recycled. Add to that water over-consumption and pollution from production and textile dyeing and this makes the fashion and textiles industry one of the least sustainable industries. But companies like the women’s fashion label Eileen Fisher are addressing this glaring problem in their industry with take-back programs that recycle old textiles. Since 2009 Eileen Fisher has been operating a program in which customers and employees can bring back old and unwanted Eileen Fisher garments for store credit.
Last year the fashion company launched Eileen Fisher Renew and opened its Tiny Factory, a 21,000 sq foot warehouse just north of New York City where old garments are refreshed to be resold or remade into something new, instead of being sent to the landfill.
2. Toast Ale
4000 years ago the Babylonians would turn their old bread into beer. In 2015 the brewers at Toast Ale brought back this ancient brewing process to address the problem of wasted bread. Food waste is the third-largest source of global GHG emissions, and industrial bakeries create a lot of surplus bread. Some of those unsold loaves of bread and crust ends get donated to soup kitchens, but a lot of that will get sent to the landfill. Toast Ale, which has expanded from its home base in London to breweries in NYC, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and Reykjavik, works with local bakeries to source bread for its beers. They have even made their recipe publically available so homebrewers can recycle their stale bread instead of sending it to landfills.
3. Project DASH
Following in line with reducing food waste, the food delivery service DoorDash debuted its Project DASH (DoorDASH Acts for Sustainability and Hunger) earlier this year. The initiative aims to not only reduce food waste but also hunger in the communities it serves. Much in the same way the Circular Economy is about connecting waste flows with applications that can put the waste to use, DoorDash is collaborating with Feeding America to use DoorDash’s powerful food delivery and logistics technology to connect restaurants with surplus food to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. This keeps the food out of landfills and in the stomachs of people who really need it.
The US produced 6.4 metric tons of e-waste in 2016, and that number continues to grow as e-waste is one of the fastest-growing segments of this nation’s waste stream. A popular business model for the Circular Economy is offering a product as a service and the Dutch company Gerrard Street is applying that model to one source of e-waste – headphones. E-waste is growing rapidly because of increased demand for electronics due to constant updates in technology and the inability to repair many electronics, which is no different for headphones. Gerrard Street founders Dorus Galama and Tom Leenders recognized that headphones often break down after one year, and usually for the same reason. To address this problem they designed a modular headphone whose parts can be replaced and upgraded.
Similar to a subscription to Spotify or Apple Music, users pay a monthly fee for their headphones. With some headphones starting at $300 USD, Gerrard Street offers a cheaper and more sustainable option for music heads. Headphones are somewhat of a niche market, but Gerrard Street’s circular design for headphones proves that modular design for electronics and the subscriptions for product model can work.
This San Francisco-based company is still in its early stages but is building up to a revolution in bioplastics. Full Cycle has developed a novel way to turn organic and food waste into PHAs, a common type of bioplastic used in a wide range of applications. Full Cycle’s PHA is compostable and marine-degradable and reduces the consumption of fossil fuels for producing polymers. Using waste a feedstock is not only a circular solution for producing bioplastics it also addresses the common critique that plant-based bioplastics consume precious natural resources to grow its feedstock.
Every year over 1 billion tires are disposed of globally, with 50 percent of those tires either going to landfills or incinerators, allowing a valuable resource to go to waste. Since 2007, Lehigh Technologies has been recovering the valuable resources in waste tires with its proprietary cryogenic turbo mill. This process freezes the rubber feedstock from waste tires and shatters it into micron-scale powder. The resulting Micronized Rubber Powder (MRP) can be used as a raw material in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications, replacing fossil-fuel derived materials. In 2017 Lehigh was acquired by the tire manufacturing giant Michelin to help the company achieve its sustainability goals of using 80% sustainable materials in their tires and recycling 100% of their tires by 2048. The future of tires is looking even more circular!
7. Rede Asta
While the circular economy is about matching up waste flows with applications, Rede Asta is also considering the middleman – or woman – in that transaction. Founded in 2005, Rede Asta is a network of more than 60 co-operative women’s groups across Brazil. Along with addressing Brazil’s considerable waste flows – 200 000 tons of solid waste is collected in the country every day, with only 3% of that getting recycled – it is also addressing social issues. In Brazil, women from lower-income communities have a harder time obtaining work and receiving equal pay, though they are predominantly responsible for household costs.
Rede Asta is training female artisans across its network to collect waste from its corporate partners across the country. The artisans then turn this waste into bespoke designs that are sold to customers in Rede Asta’s network. For example, one group of artisans created a collection of wallets and bags for Volkswagen using discarded upholstery from the company’s own cars. The artisans work in Rede Asta’s workshops, which are owned by the women’s groups and where they can access equipment and learn new techniques.
Similar to Rede Asta and Project DASH, Thread is looking to achieve social impact with its circular economy model. Thread employs informal waste collectors in countries like Haiti and Honduras to collect PET bottles from around their neighborhood. The Pittsburgh-based company then upcycles this waste into fabrics. Thread has partnered with consumer brands like Timberland, Marmot, and Reebok to supply them with this ‘responsible fabric’. Along with reducing waste, Thread has also provided jobs to hundreds of locals in these countries and helped them clean up their neighborhoods and cities.
9. MGX Minerals
When you think of the oil industry, sustainability and the circular economy are not the first things that come to mind. Canadian company MGX Minerals, however, has found a way to inject a bit of the circular economy into this industry. Globally, oil extraction produces more than 800 billion gallons of wastewater a year. The majority of that wastewater is brine, which is difficult and environmentally damaging to dispose of – the oil industry spends millions trying to manage its wastewater. This wastewater, which was extracted from deep within the earth, also contains significant levels of valuable and high-demand minerals like lithium and magnesium. With its pioneering technology MGX is able to extract these minerals from oilfield wastewater much quicker, cheaper, and with less of an environmental footprint than conventional methods. MGX is tackling waste flows from the oil industry and addressing the growing demand for valuable minerals through a more environmentally sustainable option for extraction.
10. Urban Mining
Texas-based Urban Mining recycles neodymium-iron-boron magnets (also known as “NdFeB” magnets) from end-of-life goods. NdFeB magnets are found in a wide range of products, from consumer electronics to automobiles. Using its patented ‘Magnet-to-Magnet’ process, which requires no chemical inputs nor produces any wastewater, Urban Mining is able to reprocess scrap magnets into custom-made magnets using significantly less energy than traditional processes. Urban Mining is not only reducing waste outputs from these widely-used magnets, but it is also finding value in something that might otherwise be sitting in a landfill.
Read the RUBICONMethod in full to start developing a more successful waste reduction and recycling program today.
Editors Note: Rubicon is not affiliated with the companies referenced in the blog post, and any references to companies in the post are not meant to convey any endorsement of Rubicon by those companies in any way.