Circular pioneers | innovative start-ups driving the circular economy

From entrepreneurs who produce on-trend speakers out of plastic bags, to organisations that host social enterprise workshops to teach people the possibilities of reducing, reusing and recycling, James Richards compiles a round-up of innovative start-ups driving the circular economy


When Gomi released its brightly coloured Bluetooth speakers in 2019, they were featured everywhere, from the Evening Standard to Wired – and even Forbes. Tom Meades, founder, explains the secret behind the highly distinctive look. ‘We were inspired by Japanese minimalism in our designs. Gomi actually means “waste” in Japanese.’

The company takes waste plastic from big food wholesalers in Brighton, melts it in conventional ovens, and presses the material into moulds. ‘We choose our colours just like you would for an oil painting – but these aren’t pigments; they’re waste streams. The orange is from Sainsbury’s bags, for instance, while the white is recycled pallet wrap.’

Meades explains why the team focuses on recycling low-density and high-density polyethylene plastic in particular. ‘This material is hard to recycle because it’s been in contact with food and has colours in it. Also, it’s not collected locally, and will probably be burned instead.’

Meades became passionate about using waste materials while studying 3D design and craft at the University of Brighton. ‘I became obsessed with waste that society struggles to recycle.’

Recently, Gomi partnered with beer brand Desperados, to make speakers from waste created by a party that the beer brand hosted in Berlin, which were then given as gifts to the attendees.

The company will soon be releasing its latest sustainable product – a travel charger for phones and tablets made from batteries that would otherwise be landfilled.

Community Resources Network Ireland

‘We’re a network that supports social enterprises working to prevent waste and promote reuse, repair and recycling,’ says Claire Downey, executive at Community Resources Network Ireland (CRNI). ‘In practice, we organise events, provide networking and business opportunities, undertake research, and act as an advocate for our members.’

CRNI’s 25 members include food and fashion waste awareness campaigners, second-hand organisations – such as the Irish Charity Shops Association – and bicycle and paint upcyclers.

‘Our members handle around 28,000 tonnes of goods saving more than 222,000 tonnes of carbon every year,’ says Downey.

Our members handle around 28,000 tonnes of goods saving more than 222,000 tonnes of carbon every year

CRNI is funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency under the national Waste Prevention Programme.

According to Downey, the network’s influence reaches into government. ‘I regularly meet with officials about policy, and we’re involved in several steering groups. We’ve also been deeply involved in responding to the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy consultation, based on our members’ feedback.’

Some of CRNI’s recent projects include setting up a re-use quality mark, delivering Ireland’s first circular and social public procurement project, and developing a methodology for measuring re-use in Ireland.

Goods for Good

Goods for Good is a charity that redistributes new overstocked and unwanted goods from major brands to vulnerable communities overseas and in the UK.

‘We distribute clothes, shoes, toiletries, bedding, nappies and hygiene products to causes in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America,’ says fundraising manager Kumar Hindocha.

‘Since 2014, we’ve supported two million people in need, including refugees fleeing persecution and war, UK asylum seekers, and those impacted by natural disasters, such as the typhoon in the Philippines.’

The charity works with around 100 corporate partners, including Ted Baker, Next, Puma, Dune, Regatta and Harrods. ‘Of the £19m worth of goods we’ve delivered, we know £18.2m worth (about 1,064 tonnes) would otherwise be destined for UK landfill and incineration,’ adds Hindocha.

Rosalind Bluestone, founder and chief executive officer of Goods for Good, believes the organisation’s aims match up with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals covering humanitarianism and waste.

Since 2014, we’ve supported two million people in need, including refugees fleeing persecution and war, UK asylum seekers, and those impacted by natural disasters, such as the typhoon in the Philippines

‘Goods for Good can help set the pace needed to deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through the delivery of essential goods, reducing wastage and minimising environmental degradation from landfill and incineration,’ she says.

The partnership model operated by the charity is circular and efficient, says Bluestone. ‘For every £1 we receive, more than £50 worth of essential goods are sourced, collected, centralised, sorted, labelled, shipped and distributed to vulnerable communities living in at least 10 countries worldwide.’

Goods for Good is currently calling for donations for its response to an emergency in Zambia, where it intends to deliver school uniforms, shoes, sports clothes and stationery for 5,000 boys and girls who lack these basic everyday items.

UK Secondary Raw Materials Collaboration

‘The UK Secondary Raw Materials Collaboration (UKSRMC) is a fairly loose grouping of sector professionals, academic partners and businesses focused on how we get more secondary materials into the economy,’ says lead organiser Joshua Kelly. ‘We aim to get the people who generate this material, and those who could use it, in the same room at the same time.’

The genesis of the network occured through several CIWM North East Centre events, where discussions revealed a key problem in getting the circular economy to take hold – namely, that providers of secondary material have difficulty proving its viability as an alternative to virgin material.

Many manufacturers say they can’t afford for a sub-standard batch of products to go out to customers. There’s an ingrained fear about secondary material even though research shows it is of comparable standard

‘Many manufacturers say they can’t afford for a sub-standard batch of products to go out to customers. There’s an ingrained fear about secondary material even though research shows it is of comparable standard,’ says Kelly.

‘The UKSRMC’s aim is to get a mix of disciplines and sectors together to understand the barriers to further adoption, and explore the potential for research and or policy-led solutions.’

Discussion takes place through its workshop programme, which generates reports and briefing documents. The network – which is run by volunteers who work in the industry – enjoys connections to the government, the UN environment programme, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is actively looking for extra participants.

Young Planet

Young Planet is an app, founded by Jason and Emma Ash, for giving and receiving children’s items. Once users register an account, they can search for items and create their own postings.

Emma explains the thinking behind the project: ‘As a society, it’s impossible to ignore how much plastic is used in children’s items, not including the packaging. All these items have a relatively short lifespan within one family. However, they have the capacity to serve several families – and even generations – as long as they are handed on. Young Planet is a tool to address this problem.’

Young Planet is designed to make it easy for families to get usable items for free and to pass on outgrown items to someone who could use them.

‘To put it simply, the supply and demand of our circular model helps families to be more sustainable by encouraging them not to buy new and not to bin things after a clear-out,’ says Jason. ‘If more families passed outgrown items on instead of binning them, then less space is required for landfill – not to mention the benefits to household play and budgeting.’

Recycling Technologies

Swindon-based Recycling Technologies has developed a feedstock recycling machine that uses pyrolysis to recycle residual plastic waste back into an oil it calls ‘Plaxx’.

This substance can be used by the petrochemical sector as a raw material in the production of
virgin-quality polymers, as part of a plastics circular economy. The technology can recycle plastics that are generally considered unrecyclable, such as plastic films, multi-layered plastics and bags.

The RT7000 machine has been designed to be compact and modular, allowing it to be installed on existing waste sites. By taking the plastic back to base chemicals, the process allows the materials to be reused to create high-quality polymers, suitable for all applications, including food packaging.

This year, Recycling Technologies has conducted a trial with Tesco, allowing customers to return to stores plastic that is normally considered unrecyclable – for example, crisp packets, films, black plastic, and laminates.

Elena Parisi, Recycling Technologies’ sales and marketing director, says: ‘Shoppers have engaged with the trial in a remarkable way, and Tesco has taken a positive and important first step.

In France, the company received a grant to collaborate with energy company Total and food manufacturers Mars and Nestlé to demonstrate that waste plastic can be turned from waste into Plaxx, and then back into virgin-quality plastic.

London Waste and Recycling Board

The London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) is a partnership between the Mayor of London and its boroughs. ‘Our mission is to improve waste management across the capital,’ says Wayne Hubbard, LWARB chief executive officer. ‘We work with local authorities and businesses of all sizes to help encourage, incentivise and promote circular economy business models.’

LWARB was set up by an act of parliament, and had its first meeting in 2008. ‘Our goal is to provide businesses and individuals with solutions to reduce London’s climate change contribution,’ says Hubbard.

The partnership delivers its services through two main programmes: Resource London and Circular London. The former, a collaboration with Wrap, helps the city’s boroughs to increase recycling.

We’ve also worked with big brands – such as Adidas, to implement their “Infinite Play” scheme, which enables customers to recycle their Adidas footwear

Under Circular London, which supports the capital’s circular economy development, the ‘Advance London’ project helps SMEs that have a circular economy business model, or wish to transition to one. Notable firms to benefit from this scheme include Notpla, a seaweed-based packaging company, and Toast, a brewer that uses waste bread to make beer.

‘We’ve helped more than 200 companies to date through this programme,’ says Hubbard. ‘We’ve also worked with big brands – such as Adidas, to implement their “Infinite Play” scheme, which enables customers to recycle their Adidas footwear.’

LWARB recently agreed a partnership with Glasgow Chamber of Commerce to develop and initiate circular initiatives between the two cities. The partnership also has a shared workspace open to circular economy businesses, as well as a £14m equity fund, actively investing in circular economy start-ups.

The Rediscovery Centre

The Rediscovery Centre lies on the outskirts of Dublin, in a reconditioned 1960s civic heating building called the Boiler House. More than just a physical structure, this is the National Centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland, and the focal point for a wealth of activity promoting low-carbon living and the circular economy.

‘We are a circular economy-focused visitor and education centre, housing four social enterprises: Rediscover Furniture, Rediscover Fashion, Rediscover Cycling and Rediscover Paint,’ says Sarah Miller, chief executive. ‘In a sense, these are demonstration projects, showing the possibilities of the circular economy through reuse and redesign,’ she says.

‘These businesses use unwanted materials for new product design and development, thereby demonstrating best practice resource efficiency, reuse and low carbon living.’

The centre also serves as an education centre – playing host to, among others, around 13,000 schoolchildren each year – and a training hub for people in the community. ‘It’s a place where individuals, including the long-term unemployed, can come to learn new skills or change their career, and discuss related topics. We also advocate for circular thinking at the political level.’

After being saved from demolition, the Boiler House was redeveloped and is now a showcase for low-carbon building and living practices.

Full Circle Cambridge

In Cambridge’s Market Square, a stall belonging to Full Circle Cambridge has become one of the city’s first packaging-free shops.

Between serving customers, co-founder Johanna Laibe explained to Circular how the idea has taken off. ‘We started selling sustainable life-cycle items, such as shampoo and soap, and then – after raising money through crowdfunding – we extended to food.’

The stall is open six days a week, selling everything from bamboo cutlery to washing-up liquid, anti-microplastic laundry bags, pasta, dried fruits, and soy sauce – all without packaging.

‘Before starting on Full Circle, I was a bioinformatician,’ says Laibe. ‘I met one of the other founders, Emma [Thomas], about two years ago. She was an ecologist, and invited me to one of her talks, which was about plastics. That’s where I realised we really needed to do something.

‘We started talking about a shop – first as a joke, and then more seriously. Paul [Richardson], who is an engineer, joined later on. None of us has any retail experience, so it’s been a big learning process.’

The stall has been so popular that, by the time of publication, Full Circle Cambridge should have opened its new bricks-and-mortar shop in Cambridge.

‘We want to participate in the fight against the climate crisis,’ says Laibe. ‘The biggest change we want to see is reducing what people buy. Lots of the products are made locally. This creates a few supply problems, and we have to tell customers they are not available for a while. It’s interesting to see how people’s expectations change.’

This article first featured in the March/April issue of Circular.

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