ClimateTech Startups Are Leading the Creation of a Global Circular Economy

Sep 21, 2020
Sustainability Circular Economy

Even if every single consumer worldwide commits to recycling all single-use plastic products in their homes marked with the familiar “chasing arrows” logos, the enormous volume of plastics polluting our planet will continue to grow exponentially. Consumer product manufacturers use plastics in appliances, furniture, carpeting, toys, electronics, battery casings, diapers — the list is practically endless. And most end up in landfills or the natural environment. 

Our new Sustainability Report examines how companies are not only developing ways to reverse this trend; they’re transforming the global economy. 

As we’ve explored before, the typical consumer product’s lifespan follows a straight line: it’s created, sold to customers, used, then thrown away. Out of sight, out of mind. 

But not out of the environment.

A team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Sea Education Association discovered that humans have generated more than 8 billion metric tons of plastics since the 1950s. Yet just 9% has been recycled. About 80% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment, including the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch that spans waters between North America and Japan.

Read about how startup Rheaply — graduate of the Techstars Chicago Accelerator — is growing the circular economy, on a mission to make the world’s resources more discoverable and transferable in our global economy.

This volume has grown and keeps growing because many plastics are not biodegradable. Instead of wearing down, they simply break apart into smaller and smaller pieces. 

"The plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years," said Jenna Jambeck, one of the study’s co-authors and associate professor of engineering at UGA. "Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices."

And a growing number of companies are doing just that. They’re migrating away from the linear model and adopting ‘circular’ approaches to how they operate by developing processes for creating products with less material while recovering and repurposing resources to extract their maximum value. 

Want to join us in fighting climate change? Check out the Techstars Sustainability Challenge! We’re bringing together founders, nonprofits, and universities with industry leaders, and we’ll choose the most promising ideas and partner the very best with top companies to build out real-world solutions. 

This commitment does not apply only to solving the plastics problem. Too many products have deliberately short lifespans and are difficult to repair. As you’ll learn in our Sustainability Report, the circular economy also places heavy emphasis on offering upgrades and new ways to reuse existing goods instead of forcing consumers to buy new ones. 

For example, Interface sells modular carpeting with a plant-based backing that stores more carbon than it emits. And because the pieces are modular, they can be repaired or replaced without ripping up all of a room’s carpeting. The company also has a closed-loop recycling system, so the pieces they do rip out get turned into new tiles instead of landfill waste.

French startup Carbios has created an enzyme that digests plastic bottles in a few hours. It incorporates the resulting material to create new food-grade plastic containers. Unlike traditional recycling, this type of “bio-recycling” can repeatedly occur without any loss in quality.

“Our take-make-waste economic system is unsustainable in the face of limited planetary bounds,” says Danielle Joseph, Executive Director of Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on building the circular economy that is part of the Techstars network. “Mounting plastic waste represents lost economic opportunity. In a circular economy, these valuable materials are kept in circulation and out of landfills, ensuring a second, third, or fourth lease on life.”

Want to learn more? You can download a condensed version of the report.