10 Circular Economy Trends For Sustainable Change

Last week I attended ChangeNow 2020 in Paris, an inspiring event connecting the social and environmental innovation ecosystems. It was the meeting point of the thinkers and visionaries, the policy makers, the not-for-profit actors, plenty of startups as well as corporate visitors and a young curious and engaged crowd.

It covered a range of topics from renewable energy storage to biodiversity but as the purpose of Circular Scout 24 is to inform and connect the dots on Circular Economy, I will focus on highlighting some of the circular trends I could observe during keynotes, startup pitches and wandering through the exhibition hall.

1. Reverse Logistics of Packaging

Packaging Reverse Logistics solutions and business models was one of the major trend visible at the ChangeNow summit. Several keynotes as well as multiple startups addressed this topic.

French startup Pandobac for example is reshaping the packaging practices for the gastronomy sector. In this industry, wood crates, cardboard boxes and trays as well as plastic boxes are delivered daily with meat, fish, vegetables and other food products. Packages are then immediately put in the bin for collection by the city recycling provider and mostly ends up incinerated. Pandobac is replacing the usual disposable package types by returnable plastic crates that they collect everyday from restaurants; sterilise in their facility; and return to food suppliers for the next loop. At this stage Pandobac is active only in part of France. Their concept could certainly be scaled up throughout Europe but I assume that building the reverse logistic infrastructure in each city targeted can be time and resource intensive.

Finnish startup Repack focuses on the e-commerce market by offering a returnable bag solution made of a strong fabric and prepaid return. They aim to put an end to the continuous waste of disposable plastic films and corrugated cardboard boxes in the fast growing e-commerce sector. While I have seen them in several conferences in Europe, I was so far never given the option by an e-commerce platform in Germany or France to choose their pack for return, but soon certainly!

My biggest highlight was however the keynote presentation of well-established global American recycling company TerraCycle. They are specialised on setting up collection streams for hard-to-recycle waste. They offer a more granular waste collection solution than the usual undifferentiated plastic, paper or organic bins. They enable therefore to extract more value from better separated waste streams.

TerraCycle is currently launching a new circular concept called Loop in France and the US. This concept aims at getting rid of one-way packaging. Today, for instance, shampoo or ketchup are sold in cheap plastic packs that end up mostly being incinerated to recover the energy. The Loop concept aims at replacing these cheap materials by higher value packaging materials such as metal. This will enable Brands to upgrade brand perception thanks to more premium and durable packaging.

How will it work? Consumers will have the option to either buy their usual brand in more durable packaging in a special Loop corner in brick and mortar partner retailers such as Carrefour in France or buy them online in the Loop shop. After consumption, they return their empty packages to the Loop collection point at retailers or using special Loop reverse logistic boxes. Loop then cleans the containers and coordinates the refilling. Finally they deliver newly filled packages back to the shop or user.

If Loop succeeds to scale up as they expect, it will have a big impact on packaging design with new materials and forms being used. It will change the nature of waste packaging stream globally with a reduction of plastic waste and will increase upcycling vs. downcycling. Finally it will disrupt the logistics of the retail world. Loop and house of brands could even one day decide to fully bypass retailers...or brick and mortar and online retailers could build their own packaging loop services that they would offer to brands...

The main question mark for me is how much risk the brands are willing to take to switch their biggest volume products to the Loop system. Any little change in packaging form or colour usually needs intensive customer testing because brands have only a few seconds in the shelves to be recognised by customers before they move on to the backup product. On one side this offers brands an opportunity to present themselves under a really greener aspect. On the other side there is a high financial impact in case of market share loss, resulting from a change of packaging.

This will be an exciting development to follow up in 2020 and years to come...

2. Circular Shopping Business Models

Several companies are enabling businesses and consumers to adopt circular ways to shop.

Back Market, the leading marketplace dedicated to refurbished devices is making it easy to cash back the rest value of old electric and electronic appliances. Once collected they are refurbished by their partners and sold back on their marketplace to new users. They are already present in several EU countries (Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy) as well as the UK and the USA.

French startup Lizee is helping retailers to quickly develop rental business models for suitable categories of goods, for instance hiking equipment with Decathlon or luxury evening dress, kid's clothing and toys or luggages. They provide the software platform, the warehouse and logistic.

3. New Circular Packaging Materials

Several companies have developed new types of materials to make packaging more circular. Some of them focus on replacing fossil-based polymers traditionally used to produce FMCG packaging films by bio-based alternatives.

French startup Lactips produces water soluble and biodegradable thermoplastic pellets based on milk protein. They provide a more recyclable solution to produce film for packaging and many other applications to be imagined. They claim that the use of adhesive could also be avoided thanks to the barrier properties of the material. Interesting indeed, but key for success on a larger scale is that collection and recycling infrastructure are adapted and the public educated to better sort compostable from non-compostable films, otherwise bio-based films still end up in the incinerator...

French company Carbolice developed Evanesto®, an enzymated concentrate to make PLA products fully compostable thereby helping brand owners and film converters to adopt more recyclable forms of packaging. While this is a pathway, I must however highlight the fact that there is still an on-going struggle in the packaging industry to decide whether bio-based packaging or rather monolayer films are the right way to address the recyclability challenge. Bio-based films could be just a short term solution in view of their currently higher costs while monolayer films is the long term play adopted by many film converters. Who knows?

Other young companies such as the Finnish Paptic go one step downstream by producing new forms of packaging material that replace plastic and paper for non-food applications. Their Paptic material is made of cellulosic fibers. It is breathable and water resistant. It can also be recycled in the paper stream. They position it as an alternative to plastic for shopping bags and e-commerce plastic wrappers.

4. Biodegradable Tableware

With the ban of single use plastic packaging in Europe, the established bio-based tableware players for instance received a very strong boost. Polish company Biotrem is even struggling to cope with demand for their wheat-bran tableware and work on figuring out how to expand their production capacity the fastest.

5. Bulk "packaging" in retail

Bulk packaging is for sure one of the upcoming trend in retail.

Small French company Jean Bouteille is offering both bulk liquid products dispensing in retail and returnable bottles.

We see also an increasing number of startup app-projects in Europe that aim to help localise the shops were bulk shopping is available. One of the Global Climathon 2020 challenge winner is such an app from Estonia.

6. Data-Driven Circularity

Some good decisions just come from the guts and what you feel makes sense based on your values and ethical perspectives. However, data can really help understand a situation and trigger actions that increase the efficiency of a system. This is what several startups are aiming for:

French startup Helyiot monitors the filling of waste containers with smart sensors to enable recycling providers to optimise their collection plan in real-time. Besides, their sensors gather additional context data such as weather, insects presence, etc. which enables even smarter waste collection decisions.

The startup Wasteless created in 2017 and supported by EIT Food European program is addressing the large food waste challenge. Food waste is an issue with multiple aspects. First it is a moral issue to throw away good food while too many people cannot afford it. Secondly, the food sector is one of the top 3 contributors to CO2 emissions (energy use for farming and industrial food processing, pesticides production), let aside the water consumption and soil contamination issues. Finally there is also a circular economy issue because food waste results in organic and package waste that should not have been produced in the first place. Wasteless tackles this challenge by AI-powered dynamic pricing of food products depending on the remaining shelf-life. They make the assumption that lowering prices sooner than the current system of adding a discount label one day before expiration should significantly reduce food that will go to the waste streams while increasing revenue and margin for retailers. Everybody wins!

7. Apps to Educate Households on Correct Waste Management

Today, the lack of understanding by the general public on how to dispose correctly of household waste is reducing the efficiency of the collection schemes as well as the efficiency of the recycling infrastructure.

Given the complexity of certain package types and lack of awareness of how the recycling system works, waste often ends up in the incorrect waste stream and its value cannot be recovered fully. For instance a plastic yogurt pot put in the bin in one piece (plastic pot with the paper label around it and the aluminium and paper lid on top) cannot be recycled correctly. Only the separation of the different materials allows to recover the plastic, paper on aluminium rather than incineration or landfilling.

To address this challenge, several startups have developed household waste education apps often combined with bin localisation by material in collaboration with cities and associations.

French startup Trizzy developed a chatbot or zero-waste assistant that guides city inhabitants towards the place where they can dispose of every kind of waste, be it cooking oil, plastic or anything else. They also build contacts with associations and commercial organisations that recycle or recover the value of the different waste streams.

French startup Uzer developed an even broader service through an app and an at-home-connected-box. Scanning a packaging enables to receive health and nutrition information about the content as well as indications on how best to dispose of it. As a cherry on the cake it also enables to add the product on a virtual shopping list when disposing of the package.

8. Plastic Bottle Collection Equipment

Plastic bottle collection and crushing equipment were heavily