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The circular economy can help save the planet –⁠ if we start innovating now

  • The circular economy represents the means to save the planet, as well as an enormous market opportunity.
  • There is a mismatch between multinationals struggling to keep pace with circular innovation, and entrepreneurs who lack the resources to scale up.
  • The Circulars Accelerator is bringing the two parties together to advance the zero-waste agenda.

As we begin 2021, businesses face a complex matrix of challenges – from rising geo-economic tensions to the urgency of the climate crisis. With less than 10 years to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Decade to Deliver is underway, and leaders must act for impact now.

The moment for change is now

Transitioning to a holistic circular economic model is critical to reducing environmental degradation and prioritizing biodiversity and nature, while also delivering on future competitiveness. In a circular economy, waste is designed out, and products are instead looped back into the production system at end of use. Consequently, growth is decoupled from the consumption of scarce resources, and materials are kept within productive use for as long as possible.

The circular economy presents a unique market opportunity upwards of $4.5 trillion by 2030. Accelerating this transition relies on the uptake of innovative new business models and disruptive technological innovation. Alongside prioritization of new business models, which now account for roughly 30% of M&A investment according to Accenture analysis, adopting new digital, physical and biological technologies can drive new opportunities and deliver on organizations’ triple bottom line.

Forging a path to a truly circular economy requires collaboration across the ecosystem. Today, multinational organizations with increasingly complex supply chains and processes can struggle to maintain a pulse on ever-advancing circular innovation, while at times can also lack the capabilities required to embrace new modes of operation in the transition to circular business. By contrast, entrepreneurs have the disruptive solutions to solve these challenges, but may lack the capital, resources or enabling networks to replicate and scale their solutions at pace.

Scaling circular innovation

How can we solve this mismatch across the ecosystem? Through successfully connecting multinational actors with disruptive players, stakeholders across the value chain are empowered to fully embrace innovation, to prioritize targeted business models for impact, and respond effectively to new global challenges. The Circulars Accelerator – evolved from the highly successful Circulars Awards program – is led by Accenture in partnership with Anglo American, Ecolab and Schneider Electric and hosted digitally on the World Economic Forum’s platform for SDG innovation, UpLink.

The program will connect leading global organizations prioritizing circular innovation with disruptors seeking to scale circular solutions. Through a mutually beneficial program of mentorship, collaborative innovation and strategic alliances, the Accelerator’s mission is to expedite the global circular transition, creating value and impact for early- to growth-stage innovators and established partners alike, while strengthening the circular ecosystem through action-focused partnership.

The Circulars Accelerator attracted over 200 exciting, unique and diverse entrants in its first call for applications. Following a highly competitive, multi-stage selection process, 17 outstanding start-ups have been selected for participation in the programme. Start-ups are categorized against one of three solution types required for circular transformation, which together collectively span the full value chain and respond to particular circular challenges: Innovating Products and Production, Transforming Consumption and Recovering Value. Examples from each are spotlighted below.

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1. Innovating products & production

The Innovating Products and Production cluster captures innovators working to design and deliver pioneering products, packaging and manufacturing solutions, harnessing new design approaches and material and ingredient innovation. One such innovator changing the state of play is Malaysia-based innovator, StixFresh, whose patented technology extends the shelf life of fresh produce by up to 14 days. StixFresh’s 100% plant-based stickers, the size of a 50-cent coin, biologically reconstruct the self-defence compounds of select fresh fruits, creating a natural barrier to slow down decay reactions caused by bacterial or fungal activity. It is estimated that one third of all food produced globally goes to waste, making reducing food waste the number one solution to fighting the climate crisis.

2. Transforming consumption

A step further along the value chain, Transforming Consumption addresses the reality that we currently consume 1.75 times more resources each year than the Earth can naturally regenerate, and we are on course to more than double resource use by 2050. Here, innovators are working to conceptualize new models of circular consumption, including product-as-a-service, product-use extension (e.g. repairs, secondary marketplaces), and sharing platforms. Algramo is a Chilean start-up whose omni-channel, cross-brand platform technology enables brands and retailers to sell goods to consumer using smart reusable packaging for the lowest possible prices. Algramo’s packaging distribution system incorporates Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to enable innovations such as their patented Packaging as a Wallet technology and IoT-connected vending machines. It is estimated that converting 20% of plastic packaging into reuse models presents a $10 billion opportunity, making rethinking packaging both a significant business priority in addition to having environmental imperative.

3. Recovering value

The Recovering Value cluster prioritizes solutions which close the loop on our existing – and no longer fit for purpose – “take, make, waste” linear system. This group of successful innovators have established novel ways to enable product reuse and the recovery of embedded value from waste or end-of-use products. Mint Innovation, an exciting New Zealand-based urban mining company, are developing low-cost, scalable processes for recovering valuable metals from e-waste streams. It is estimated by the UN that over $10 billion of precious metals get disposed of as e-waste annually. Mint Innovation’s clean processes use hydrometallurgy and biotechnology to minimize this waste stream, and enable a full circular economy in precious metals. Having recently secured $20 million in funding, Mint Innovation plan to commission biorefineries in the UK and Australia; these plants will have the capacity to process up to 3,500 tons of e-waste each year.

Join the conversation

Stay in the loop with the impactful circular journeys of Cohort ’21 by following The Circulars social media or join the new Circulars Community on UpLink – the World Economic Forum’s digital platform for crowdsourced innovation towards the UN SDGs – where you can join the movement by getting involved in challenges, opportunities and dialogues to drive applied innovation at speed and scale.

Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

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