Man hiking in the mountains

5 ways the circular economy reduces waste and increases value for people and planet

The circular economy is transforming the way we use and reuse resources, reducing waste and shifting our lives in a more sustainable direction. Here are five examples of circular economies that are transforming industries and already in action across the globe, including container deposit schemes for closed-loop recycling.

1. Circular fashion

Fashion start-up MUD Jeans started from a simple question: What if we cleaned up our own messes? In 2013 they introduced a way of making jeans more sustainable, by challenging themselves to design their jeans for 100% recyclability.

The circular economy is about more than just using recycled materials in products: it requires re-thinking a product’s entire value chain – its entire lifespan – to address environmental issues of production and consumption.

MUD Jeans took an innovative approach to this – by leasing jeans instead of just selling them. The concept of the ‘sharing economy’ is generally circular, because it focuses on access and services rather than ownership. Applying this business model enables MUD Jeans to keep ownership of the jeans, thus keeping its product within its manufacturing cycle. This means they can take back a pair of jeans and turn them into vintage jeans or tear them apart to make new yarn. By taking on the role of both the producer and recycler of jeans, they extend their own responsibility and their ability to ensure more circular fashion. They also use less harmful dyes in production, and recycle 95% of their wastewater.

In a case of separate producers and recyclers working together, footwear brand Timberland has teamed up with tyre manufacturer Omni United to use the rubber from tyres to make soles for shoes. The process of making rubber involves harvesting latex from rubber trees – so their innovative way of reusing existing rubber has been commended for slowing down global deforestation, as well as reducing Timberland’s own manufacturing costs.

2. Deposit return schemes

Around 1.4 trillion drink containers are produced every year. This is an enormous amount of quality material that can be reused or recycled. Thanks to deposit return schemes, many disposed drink containers are being cleaned, processed back into small pieces of raw material, and made into new bottles and cans.

Deposit return schemes reward recycling by giving consumers a financial incentive to dispose of their drink containers in a sustainable way. The schemes work by adding an extra deposit on top of the price of a drink, which is refunded to us consumers when we return our empty drink containers for recycling, often at a reverse vending machine. By automating the process of collecting, sorting and refunding the deposit for drink containers, reverse vending machines make recycling both time and cost efficient.

Importantly, this process of separating drink containers from other types of waste keeps the containers free from contamination – a common issue in household recycling. This is key because plastic producers need to know the recycled material is safe for food contact: recycling at a reverse vending machine means containers stand the best chance of becoming new bottles and cans, rather than downcycled or landfilled.

Deposit return schemes are instrumental in the architecture of a cycle in which used bottles and cans become new drink containers. Containers can be recycled again and again in a continuous loop, in a clear-cut example of a circular economy. It reduces the reliance on extraction of fossil fuels to create new containers – and saves on the energy required for this process, too. TOMRA, a world leader in reverse vending, calls this process Clean Loop Recycling.

3. Household products

Household cleaning brand Method uses old plastic bottles to make new packaging for their products. Much of its packaging is made from plastic bottles that have ended up in the ocean and collected by volunteers in Hawaii, and also designed for maximum recyclability. The ingredients in their cleaning products are also biodegradable and don’t have a harmful impact on waterways.

It‘s not only Method’s products that seek to be circular, but also production: 99% of waste from Method’s factories is recycled or reused in some way. The company aims to reach 100%, by increasing composting and recycling capability in its factories, and avoiding hard-to-recycle materials in the first place. Also, the roof of Method’s Chicago factory is home to a 75,000 sq ft greenhouse that is gearing up to produce 500 tons of fresh, pesticide-free produce annually for the local community and surrounding restaurants.

Dutch bed and mattresses manufacturer Royal Auping is considered to be at the forefront of circular economy in the Netherlands, with their goal of achieving production processes in which all fibres are recycled. By taking back used mattresses, their factory can recycle these into new ones. Making products that are 100% recyclable, Royal Auping has cut water use by 60% and electricity use by 30%, and by centralizing their production have cut 120,000 transport kilometers per year.

4. Zero-waste dining

Scandinavian startup Too Good To Go has an app to help eliminate food waste. Globally, around one third of food produced is lost or thrown out every year. Although food waste can be used for anything from fuel to textiles to have a positive impact, food that is still edible should simply be eaten.

Too Good To Go connects restaurants and grocery stores in 10 countries with people who can purchase food that would otherwise have gone to waste. For a discounted price, people can go to a store at closing time to “rescue” food that stores aren’t able to save for the next day. This is one of many initiatives designed to intercept food before it is wasted and make the most of our edible resources.

Caf de Ceuvel in Amsterdam Noord is an innovative café that strives for every plate they serve to make a positive impact somewhere elsewhere. The area surrounding the café is made up of old discarded boats turned into co-working spaces and showrooms. In addition to solar power, greenhouses and second-hand building materials, de Ceuvel filters wastewater from kitchen sinks with plants – and even recycles the contents from toilets in the working spaces and café into fertilizer for growing food.

The cafe sits on soil ruined by a century of polluting industrial activities. Instead of diluting the dirt with better soil, essentially just moving the issue somewhere else, the community uses plants known to absorb these pollutants through their roots. By merging nature and technology, de Ceuvel is applying circular economy thinking to their entire ecosystem, closing their resources loops and extracting value and nutrients from what many people view as waste.

5. Sugar production

By thinking outside the (sugar) box, British Sugar in Norfolk is not merely a sugar factory. They supply 420,000 tons of sugar each year from beets grown around the east of England – but in addition they also produce 12 different products they sell to market, ranging from food for animals and humans, to valuable chemicals.

When three million tons of beets arrive at the factory annually, they must be cleaned before they can be processed for sugar. Rather than this dirt and stone being a problem, British Sugar sells this ‘waste’ for other industrial purposes at volume of 150,000 tons per year. Their facility at Wissington is also home to the UK’s first bioethanol fuel plant, producing around 55,000 tons of renewable fuel from sugar syrup. This makes British Sugar more resilient to changes in the market, as they can supply both food and biofuel from their agricultural production – which balances the traditional debate between ‘food vs fuel’ as these two products can be in potential conflict when arable land is used to produce fuel, not food.

British Sugar is also the leading supplier of liming products in the UK, which are used to manage acidity in soil for agriculture. The product meets standards for organic food production as well. Additional co-products are beet sugar-derived chemicals used for fish feed and tomatoes grown in on-site greenhouses that utilizes surplus CO2 and heat from the sugar plant.

While not a technology company, British Sugar uses understanding of energy and material flows to continue improving their system - keeping in mind the whole picture of their production to make the most of all their resources. British Sugar’s way of working becomes circular by putting their by-products, which might once have been considered waste, into new uses and processes.

The global population will hit 10 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the world’s natural Resources are being used at an ever-increasing pace– making it critical for us to find sustainable new ways to make (and re-make) our products. It’s not just an environmental matter, but also a matter of economic sustainability – both in terms of resource efficiency and cost reduction. Society is currently using resources equivalent to 1.7 planets each year. Where are those extra 0.7 planets coming from?

These examples show how the circular economy can help tackle pressing challenges in a wide range of industries. The logic of circular economy works for all industries, and we are looking forward to seeing many more examples in the coming years.

Clean Loop Recycling for drink containers is an important step towards reducing waste and making use of valuable materials that otherwise can end up in nature – where it causes much harm. Find out how TOMRA is leading in circular, closed-loop recycling of these containers.