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Don’t Be a Square—Be Circular!

Insights + Opinion

Sustainable fishing farms in Ghana, air-cleaning carpets and software that operate trains to save on energy. These are just some of the surprising headlines from our case study Sustainia100 that EcoWatch was among the first to report on last week.

Over the last six months, we have researched more than 900 innovations, technologies and projects from more than 70 countries on nearly all continents. Why? To pinpoint where and how innovations are being developed, deployed and put to scale. This will enable companies and consumers to get in on the abundant opportunities sustainability has in store for us.

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The released study covers new efforts to turn the fashion and food industries, buildings and transportation systems more efficient and sustainable. And the result is clear: The global markets are currently witnessing a growing diversity in sustainability innovations, which is providing businesses with new market opportunities. From intelligent window glass to big data services monitoring water leaks, sustainable innovation is impacting markets and industries at an incredible pace these years.

When you research your way through this many innovations—developments and popular measures become apparent. Right now, one thing is dominating the green innovation in the market: the notion of a circular economy.

Ashes to ashes—dust to dust

These years, more and more companies are going in circles. And I mean that in a good way. The Sustainia100 study documents how corporations across industries are joining the circular economy by deploying measures to close production loops. A high amount of new products are designed for reuse, recycling, upcycling or even complete biodegradation in order to minimize waste. The end goal is to close the life-cycle of a product by using waste or end-of-use material as resource for new production.

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One example is Italian company Bio-on that is replacing petroleum-based plastics with 100 percent biodegradable plastic made from agricultural waste. Made from the byproducts of sugar beet and cane production, this new material is a groundbreaking way to fight the plastic pollution of our oceans and landfills. Another example is Atlantic Leather that is using leftovers from fish-production. Yes, the skin from salmons and cods, which are normally thought of as not valuable, is used for beautiful bags, shoes and jackets. Prada, Nike and Dior are among the loyal customer base.

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Return systems: A new business model in itself

A cornerstone in the circular economy is effective return systems that secure used materials and components for recycling. These systems appear in many different shapes in the Sustainia100, but have a common goal of minimizing waste and turning it into a valuable resource to a company. Across the U.S., a novel recycling system is being spread: An eco-ATM. Just like normal ATMs, you go there to get money. But unlike normal ATMs, this machine does not take credit cards. It takes your old tech devices instead. The ecoATMs are put in place across the states, taking old device and compensating the donors in cash. Another example of a very successful return system is I:CO that has created an innovative take-back system for your used jeans, sweaters and footwear. They are deployed in 54 countries and receive 700 tons of used clothing—daily! This material is sorted into 350 different categories that are re-used in the production of new materials, or re-designed as new clothing item. Again, the customer are rewarded with cash for their returned clothes. And I:CO gets a hold of cheap materials that they can re-use. It’s a clear win-win. 

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Fashion has an eye out for circles

Trailblazing innovations have been developing the circular economy over the last decades making recycling and waste-reduction easier to deploy and even a profitable part of the business. But not only are the innovations becoming better and smarter, they are also broadening their impact.

Over the last years, we have seen how the circular mindset is being taken up by increasingly more industries. An interesting development here is that solutions for the circular economy are seen outside the expected sectors such as food and waste management. Over the last three years of mapping innovation for the Sustainia100 studies, we have been surprised to see especially one industry showing a new appetite for the circular mindset: The fashion industry.

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With a long history of troubling issues from workers’ right to polluting productions, this industry has a long way to go. However, the first steps are being taken these years. Abundant innovations are now providing the materials, methods and technologies necessary to set new standards throughout the supply chains. 

In Holland, Dutch company Mud Jeans has made a business out of leasing jeans and other clothing. The service provides customers the option of keeping, swapping or returning them after use for recycling, however, MUD keeps the ownership of the materials. And in the U.S., denim company Levi’s has along with its suppliers created a water recycling system saving millions of liters by reducing the amount of fresh water used in the finishing process.

Huge savings, new markets, new jobs

In Europe, projections have been made on the potential of circular economy. And the results are interesting. Not just from a sustainability point of view, but also financially.

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An advanced circular economy could generate around $700 billion in materials savings each year in the EU. The savings potential is especially prominent in the fast consumer goods industries, where circularity could yield material a saving of 21.9 percent per year. Building out this industry of circularity has a potential of creating 400,000 jobs in the European Union alone.

Just think how many jobs that would translate to on the U.S. market. This is why we must start thinking in circles across countries and markets.

EcoWatch's editor Brandon Baker wrote a six-part series on Sustainia100. Here are parts onetwothreefourfive and six.

 

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