Startups help pave the road to a circular economy

In March 2020, the European Union adopted its new Circular Economy Action Plan. The plan presents new initiatives to modernize and transform the economy, while at the same time protecting the environment. The aim is to make sustainable, long-lasting products and to enable European citizens to take full part in the circular economy and benefit from the positive change that it brings about.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, which was also conducted in March 2020, the growing amount of waste is among the top three environmental concerns for citizens: 94% even said they regarded the protection of the environment as a personal goal. Those interviewed believed the most effective ways of tackling environmental problems are by changing consumer behavior and adapting production processes.

In 2015, the European Union adopted the first Circular Economy Action Plan to give a new boost to jobs, growth and investment, and to develop a carbon neutral, resource-efficient and competitive economy. With the new 2020 action plan, the EU is enforcing its pledge to make the circular economy a pillar of its industrial strategy, and is committing to addressing its citizens’ concerns about the environment. The plan focuses on several core issues, amongst them the use of plastic and its consequences, and the pollution caused by textiles.

Circular Economy Action Plan: Focus on Plastics

The introduction of plastics brought a revolution in medicine, space-travel and automobile production, to name only a few of the industry sectors that benefit from plastics. Since it is cheap and easy to produce, plastic became a convenience product. Today’s throw-away culture is a consequence of that development. Single-use plastics now account for 40% of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and cutlery, have a lifespan of just a couple of minutes, yet they may stay in the environment for hundreds of years. Plastic takes decades to degrade and microscopic particles are found inside fish, birds, and other animals.

The vast majority of MEPs (497 of 560) voted in favour of the agreement. Lead MEP Frédérique Ries from Belgium – a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – said: ‘This legislation will reduce the environmental damage bill by €22 billion – the estimated cost of plastic pollution in Europe until 2030. Europe now has a legislative model to defend and promote at international level, given the global nature of the issue of marine pollution involving plastics. This is essential for the planet.’

The following products will be banned in the EU by 2021:

Cooperation for a cleaner environment

Establishing a circular economy takes the cooperation of multiple parties. Politicians must provide the necessary legal framework, consumers must take responsibility for their purchasing decisions, and businesses need to be prepared to adapt their production processes and provide transparency. To make that adaption possible, it is also essential that businesses have tangible alternatives to plastics that they can choose from.

Startups are leading the way

This is where startups come into play: ‘We need startups as drivers for innovation to develop these alternatives,’ says Dr Thomas Fischer, Head of Market Intelligence and Governmental Affairs at Landbell Group. ‘As an expert for the Green Alley Award, I’ve always been impressed by the clever ideas I hear. Even though not all of them appeared feasible to me, it is always a great experience to see so many enthusiastic people spending their time and energy on developing circular economy solutions.’

Two successful examples of startups providing sustainable alternatives to conventional materials are 2017 Green Alley Award winner Sulapac and 2018 Green Alley Award winner Aeropowder. With their eco-packaging made of wood and natural adhesives, the Finnish startup Sulapac developed an alternative to plastic packaging. Aeropowder, from the UK, came up with eco-friendly thermal packaging made of feathers that can be used instead of polystyrene.

Giving waste a new value

2019 Green Alley Award winner Gelatex Technologies is another example of an innovative alternative to conventional material: The Estonian startup has convinced the jury with their sustainable alternative to leather. The Gelatex material is mainly made from second-hand gelatin derived from the waste of the leather or meat industries.

‘With 25% of animal waste (five million tonnes in Europe per year) being burned or thrown-away, Gelatex gives this waste a new value,’ says CEO and co-founder, Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca. Gelatex can be used in the textile, automotive and furniture industries.

To achieve the circular shift, it takes these innovative ideas and strong cooperation at all levels of society: ‘The transition to the circular economy will be systemic, deep and transformative, in the EU and beyond,’ summarizes the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan. ‘It will be disruptive at times, so it has to be fair. It will require an alignment and cooperation of all stakeholders at all levels – EU, national, regional and local, and international.’

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