The world is experiencing a period of transformation. Our global waste problem requires us to transition from our current linear system to a circular economy to ensure that net zero is achievable by 2050.
The idea of a circular economy has been around since the 1980s, but is gaining more momentum in recent years following engagement at COP26 and emerging government policies.
Technology is also being developed specifically to tackle the world’s waste problem, and provide solutions to any obstacles that arise during the transition. Taking advantage of sustainable technologies is key to creating a circular economy that can stabilise global temperatures.
We looked at the different stages of the circular model, and the pivotal role technology has in making them function.
The design and manufacture of product
The early stages of a product often determine the amount of waste that will be created in its lifetime. Manufacturing a product from virgin plastics not only creates pollution during the production process, but creates a product that is likely to end up in a landfill.
Many companies are experimenting with materials that have a more environmentally friendly lifecycle. These can be new materials that come from natural sources or materials made from recycled products.
In 2019 The North Face collaborated with Spiber, a Japanese company that has invented a fermentation-derived material, to create their ‘Moon Parka’. The jacket was made from bio-fabricated brewed proteins which take a silk-like form. As this was a new experiment, Spiber gave buyers of the jacket “complimentary yearly maintenance” so that the company could keep track of how the material performs over time. Transitioning to more natural materials will require diligence, but is a step in the right direction as these materials can often break down more easily than synthetic materials.
Recycled materials are another solution to the over-generation of waste. Allbirds, a New Zealand-American apparel and footwear brand, are shifting towards more sustainable materials in its products. Some of their materials include recycled bottles for their laces, castor bean oil in their insoles and merino wool to create a breathable, comfortable shoe.
Allbirds are among the many companies opting for recycled packaging for their products, using “90% recycled cardboard” to create their own. In 2018 containers and packaging accounted for 82.2 million tons of municipal solid waste generation, compared to 77.9 million in 2015. This upwards trajectory over the years demands more recyclable packaging, and products that are designed with this packaging in mind.
The product in the consumer’s hands
Once a product reaches the consumer, it is usually up to them how they use it and how long they use it for. Consumers have a responsibility to shop sustainability and not be wasteful with their products, however companies are also finding ways to ensure that their products are having a positive impact on the environment throughout their entire lifecycle.
Amsterdam-based company Gerrard Street offers a subscription service for its headphones where they repair and recycle the headphones at the end of their life. The modular design of the headphones means 85% of its components can be reused, making this service a great contribution to the circular economy. Repair and recycle services are becoming more popular in recent years as they boost the longevity of products and materials, helping companies to better understand the lifecycle of their products.
Although this approach can work for many products, some are not made to be kept. Plastic bottles and aluminium cans, for example, are often bought on the go where there are not always convenient recycling facilities.
Reverse vending machines (RVMs) are currently being tested in locations such as Europe, Asia and North America to address this problem and increase recycling rates. According to the WRAP Recycling Tracker Report 2021, only 43.8% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in the UK, which is partly down to its lack of recycling facilities.
Getting people on board with RVMs may require more than statistics, which led Greentech to develop the ‘trovr’ app which rewards people with vouchers and discounts when they use an RVM. Incentivising people to recycle their products with apps like this one could play a huge role in the success rate of RVMs.
Our upcoming app also has a social element to it which allows users to interact and work together with their family and friends based on how many items they recycle. We believe that synergising these two technologies is a step in the right direction to drastically reduce global waste.
Preventing waste at the end of a product’s life
The whole idea behind the circular economy is to completely eliminate waste from our society. RVMs have a huge role to play in making this possible, as they target the issue of waste not being disposed of correctly in public places.
Many countries are looking to introduce deposit return schemes (DRS) which work by adding a small deposit onto the cost of single-use plastic bottles and cans, which is returned back to them when they recycle the item. This can come in the form of cash or vouchers which are sometimes advertised as a reward for looking after the planet. RVMs are a major part of DRS infrastructure, as they provide a public place for the items to be deposited and later safely recycled.
We have the technology to implement this, but government enforcement will be needed to underpin the integration of DRS and RVMs. Across the UK, a range of deadlines have been put in place for introducing DRS, many of which are planned for launch in the next few years. Scotland is currently the furthest ahead in the UK, with regulations for DRS to be operational in July 2023, while England and Wales plan to introduce DRS in late 2024.
Globally, countries are developing stricter regulations around waste to ensure that they meet net zero by their targeted year. France introduced an Anti-Waste Law in 2020, which includes world-first policy measures. The measures include: “phase out single-use plastic packaging by 2040” and “promote a better resource management system from the design stage to the recovery of materials”. This law was a response to the estimated 4.5 million tonnes of plastic waste the country generated in 2016, which led to the “biggest plastic pollution in the Mediterranean region that year coming from France”.
The mass amounts of waste that we still produce cannot be ignored, however the success rate of DRS makes it a promising prospect as “between 70% and 100% of all drink containers are returned for recycling” with the technology. This makes it the most successful recycling system to date, making it something that is likely to be introduced on a global scale in the near future.
The regeneration of a product
The final stage of the circular model, before it starts all over again, is the regeneration of a product. Keeping materials like plastic and rubber in circulation can significantly reduce waste that contributes to pollution. Businesses are being more innovative with their products now that a whole new market of materials has been opened up.
DGrade, one of our own partners, makes clothing and accessories from recycled plastic bottles using Greenspun technology. Their process involves washing and shredding the bottles, melting them into a fibre and spinning the fibre into a yarn. It uses 50% less energy, 20% less water, and produces 55% fewer carbon emissions compared to conventional polyester manufacturing. Companies like DGrade are acting as the next step after consumers have been incentivised to recycle by apps like trovr, and have chosen to deposit their items into devices like RVMs.
The clothing and accessories industry is a big contributor to global warming, not only due to the materials it uses but emissions from the production process and transportation of the products. One accessory that is currently in high demand is face masks, which are highly disposable but not often recyclable or biodegradable. DGrade is also creating face masks using their technology to corner this market, and inspire other companies to find more sustainable materials to make masks that still work effectively.
Working together is imperative
Every stage of our current ‘take-make-waste’ system must be transformed, and making the circular transition a success will require support from all sectors. New technology allows us to recycle materials safely and effectively, but stricter governance and customer incentive will be vital in normalising deposit return schemes in society. Creating a closer relationship between the products we recycle and the products we buy can provide a clearer picture of the circular economy in action, making it more than just an idea.
The North Face collaboration with Spiber | The Sustainable Mag
Allbirds’ sustainable materials | Allbirds
“Containers and packaging accounted for 82.2 million tons of municipal solid waste generation” | EPA
Gerrard Street headphones | Ellen MacArthur Foundation
WRAP Recycling Tracker Report 2021 | Recycling Bins
Scotland DRS deadline | Zero Waste Scotland
France Anti-Waste Law in 2020 | Ellen MacArthur Foundation
“Between 70% and 100% of all drink containers returned for recycling” | Tomra
DGrade Greenspun technology | DGrade