A circular economy is urgently required for the shift to a more sustainable planet. But it will take new, innovative ideas to build a global system that uses and reuses all of the resources within it and moves us away from the deeply entrenched extractive system under which the modern world functions.
At Circularity 20, GreenBiz’s online circular economy event, five startups presented their potentially world-altering ideas during the Accelerate competition. This GreenBiz tradition began in 2012 at its VERGE events, offering a venue where startups make a 2.5-minute pitch of their technology to the audience.
During last week's event, the online audience voted on its favorite, and an expert panel of Taj Eldridge, senior director of investments at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), and Monique Mills, with the Startup Catalyst at the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Institute of Technology, offered thoughts on the startups and their potential.
Mills said that he considering new ideas, she looks to make sure that a startup will be able to establish itself and stay relevant in a changing business environment. "Our main focus is to make sure they're able to become a sustainable business model, and one that can be supported into the future of how things will be done," she said.
For Eldridge, one exciting thing about circular startups is that they're working with communities that otherwise might not be thinking about environmental issues.
"This is the opportunity to really get all the communities that have not been able to have the conversation about sustainability involved now," he said.
In order of presentation, here's what the contenders had to offer.
Borobabi CEO Carolyn Butler took the virtual stage to pitch the sustainable children’s clothing rental startup. The early-stage company, based in New York, focuses on the $16 billion children’s clothing market, which, like the entire apparel space, suffers from a significant amount of waste. Children’s clothing, especially, often gets thrown away because children grow out of pants, shirts, shoes and other garments so quickly.
Borobabi uses a circular model to serve as a platform where parents can rent clothes for children aged 0-6. The most unique feature is that the brand prices its clothes based on how durable they are.
"We achieve true circularity by hitting on all three pillars of the circular economy. On the supply side, we only partner with ethical and sustainable brands who manufacture natural toxin-free clothing using organic agricultural practices, which regenerate natural systems,” Butler said. “We keep our products in circulation for as long as possible by renting only the highest-quality most durable items, ensuring they can be worn multiple times and retain like-new quality. Also, we helped design clothes with natural and monofibers that are recyclable. Our recycling partnerships are local here in the U.S. and help to keep our clothes out of landfills."
The startup Infinity Goods has created a zero-waste grocery delivery service in Denver, Colorado, with plans to expand soon. CEO Ashwin Ramdas tried to go zero-waste — and then realized that he had to give up some of his favorite foods, such as ice cream and pasta, and lug around containers to stores every time he tried to shop. He realized that convenience and sacrifice was often a barrier, even for eco-conscious shoppers. So he founded Infinity Goods to connect those who want to go zero-waste but have found it too difficult.
"It’s like the milkman, but now for a wide selection of food from fresh produce to tofu eggs pasta ice cream bread," Ramdas explained.
The company serves as a delivery service where groceries come in reusable containers, then get retrieved, cleaned and reused in future deliveries, cutting out the plastic packaging waste and relieving the customer of doing any work themselves. Infinity Goods has partnerships with local Colorado producers, which have agreed to reuse their packaging through the platform, fostering a local, waste-free circular economy.
Salubata is a Nigerian startup that creates modular shoes from recycled plastic waste. The team of environmental scientists has figured out a way to knit together recycled plastic to create parts of a shoe that fit together — which then also can be taken apart at the end of life. The recycled plastic material also comes in different shapes and colors, which can be zipped into the same sole so consumers essentially can design their own low-carbon shoe.
The global shoe market is valued at $264 billion per year, said CEO Fela Buyi. This product serves both shoe enthusiasts and eco-conscious shoppers.
Mimica is a startup that aims to make the food system more sustainable with smart-design labels that extend the shelf life of fresh food. One major challenge for sustainable food systems is that there’s waste along every part of the food supply chain. Mimica’s labels are an intervention at the retail and consumer level to prevent edible food from being thrown out.
"Expiration dates are set at the worst-case scenario, but the reality is that we keep our food much better than that. Dates are shortened to protect consumers in the rare case of problems in the supply chain or in our homes," said Mimica founder and director Solveiga Pakštaitė. "And this actually hurts retailers’ bottom lines, because this hurts their ability to be able to sell produce in their stores. Add back just two days, and we can see food waste being cut in half in our stores, more than that in our homes, and sales go up when shelf life is extended. With products like juice and beef, the shelf life doubles."
The label, Mimica Touch, shows consumers exactly when food spoils. They just run their fingers over it, and if the label is smooth, the food is fresh. If it has bumps, it has spoiled.
Resortecs is a Belgium-based startup that provides a solution to the lack of apparel recycling. Only about 1 percent of garments are recycled — and one major reason is that garments aren’t designed to be recycled, because they have several components such as zippers or buttons that need to be separated.
Resortecs has created a new material that can be used to sew together these components that breaks down at a high heat, allowing the components to separate easily and removing a major obstacle to reusing these parts. Plus, this heat-sensitive material only breaks down at extremely high temperatures, so it doesn’t affect the garment itself when people are wearing clothes.
"Garments made can be washed and ironed," said Resortecs CEO Cédric Vanhoeck. "The material is not damaged in the process."
The audience voted on the online platform to ultimately select Mimica as the winner of this year’s Circularity Accelerate.