The challenges of achieving a zero-waste economy are well documented. Virtually all of the world’s established value chains have been built linearly, with low cost and ease of consumption front of mind. Increasingly though, we see novel and encouraging areas of circularity emerging. We’ve found that once we start looking for examples of the circular economy in action, we can’t stop noticing them. Here are five numbers which demonstrate innovation can overcome the flaws of an old-world linear economic model.
Since 1987, German company Befesa has been working to advance the circularity of metals, by recovering process waste and by-products, refining them, and re-selling them. In Aluminium, it does this by collecting salt slags, residues and spent pot casings (literally huge pot linings which are infused with aluminium) and, through grinding, filtering and processing, extracting the re-usable contents.
Because of the energy-intensity of primary aluminium smelting, recycling of this type generates primary metal at a 95% lower energy requirement, while avoiding the upstream mining of bauxite. For its part, Befesa recycles 1.6 million tons of industrial residues per annum, from which it extracts 1.4 million tons of valuable material, in turn avoiding an estimated 2.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.
November 2022 saw a marked step-up in efforts to improve packaging circularity in the European Union (EU). Among other measures, the European Commission proposes that all member states implement a deposit return scheme (DRS) for metal and plastic beverage containers by 1 January 2029, expanding on the schemes already implemented in countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Data show European countries which implement DRS see their collection rates rising to 90%, with schemes paying for themselves through the unrecovered deposits of unreturned containers. The 90% recovery level also forms a separate EU-wide container capture target for 2029.
Such policy will likely benefit leading participants in the recycling value chain, such as Tomra, the world’s largest provider of reverse vending machines and waste sorting machines. There has been good progress on plastic recycling in the EU, although there is much more to do – Tomra notes that 38 million tons of plastic are still lost to incineration, landfill, or released into nature in the region each year.
Figure 1: People covered by Deposit Return Schemes for single-use containers in Europe
Source: Reloop Global Deposit Book 2022, UN World Development Indicators and Eurostat, accessed March 2023.
UK company DS Smith has been making cardboard boxes since the 1940s. Few would have predicted back then that it would grow to become Europe’s largest cardboard and paper recycler. Packaging innovation is at the core of the company, and, among other targets, it is working towards displacing 1 billion pieces of problem plastics from supermarket shelves by 2025.
In part, this can be achieved by substituting other materials for plastic, but in other areas, innovation is key. For example, many packaging materials have to be durable and water resistant. To tackle this, DS Smith is working with Aquapak, a manufacturer of marine-safe, soluble polymers, to replace hard-to-recycle plastics such as laminate film.
Re-commerce is the act of selling used, refurbished or out-of-season goods, giving them a new lease of life. This reduces the need for new products, while helping to avoid landfill waste. Since its first sale of a broken laser pointer in 1995, eBay has been instrumental in making re-commerce easy and accessible to individuals and businesses alike.
Today, the company is home to approximately 1.5 billion live listings and 147 million active buyers. In 2021, non-new goods made up nearly 90% of eBay’s gross merchandise value, totalling nearly $78 billion. According to company estimates, these sales helped to avoid more than 47,000 metric tonnes of landfill waste.
US company Darling Ingredients repurposes animal by-products and other natural materials that would otherwise be sent to landfill. These are processed to create a broad range of ingredients and products, including pet food, animal feed, plant fertiliser, collagen and binding agents for photographic paper.
Through its Diamond Green Diesel business, the company also turns waste fats and used cooking oil into renewable diesel. In 2021, Darling Ingredients produced 372 million gallons of the fuel. Renewable diesel can be substituted directly into traditional diesel engines and infrastructure, while producing up to 80% less emissions than standard diesel on a life-cycle basis. It is becoming increasingly common in the US and elsewhere, with global production forecast to grow by 95-159% between 2022 and 2027, according to the IEA.
Figure 2: Global renewable diesel production
Source: IEA, Renewables 2022 report, accessed March 2023.
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