We need to extract more materials from waste streams and do it faster


Ahead of her big interview in the upcoming issue of Circular, Sophie Thomas, co-founder and Chief Design Garbologist at etsaW Ventures Ltd, calls for innovation and circular investment in materials from waste streams.

With the rise of start-ups looking into new materials, the age-old saying “where there’s muck, there’s brass” is having its moment once again, except the brass is now made of collagen, chitin, indium, cellulose, and all sorts of interesting and valuable ingredients.

The hunt to extract possible new materials from discarded ones is being fuelled by the climate emergency and higher demand leading to increased pressure on primary resource extraction – and it’s growing.

The question is how can we support and accelerate these necessary explorations to turn them into business opportunities, and what is the role of the waste management sector? At etsaW Ventures we seek, activate, and scale the best ideas that ignite circularity, building companies from a very early stage or ground up that will disrupt and reset.

Anyone who has read this year’s Circularity Gap Report should still be in shock. Bluntly, it states that we are now living in an “overshoot era” meaning that we extract more than the Earth can give.

Our current state of (circular) material recovery sits at a minuscule 7.2% and has not only plateaued but worryingly seems to be on a downward trajectory.

Over 70% of GHGs emitted are directly linked to material handling and use (from extraction, and transportation to processing and use) of our societal “stuff” e.g. our clothes, technology and meals. The global situation is getting worse year on year – driven by our insatiable demand for material extraction and use.

Our current state of (circular) material recovery sits at a minuscule 7.2% and has not only plateaued but worryingly seems to be on a downward trajectory. This means that nearly everything we make is still created from virgin material, and more than 90% of these materials fall out of use: either wasted, lost, or remaining unavailable for reuse for years, locked into long-lasting stock such as buildings and machinery.

This is not sustainable, it’s code red. If the reports tell us one thing it’s that time is running short for big, audacious, imaginative ideas but that we must dial up this type of work. Thankfully there are many entrepreneurs with ideas that have the potential to fill the gaps.

The question is more: how do we accelerate a process which can often take decades to play out?

The solution for start-ups

Business start-up

You can’t just launch a new material onto a market without patenting, testing, certifying, marketing and manufacturing – yet we need to do so at lightning speed, and on massive scales.

To be serious about moving our global economy towards one that is built on resource efficiency, product use optimisation and environmental regeneration & protection, we need to evaluate current investment models.

These start-ups with novel types of material need early commitment, rapid investment, and intelligent, long-term understanding with “patient” capital whilst they go from small pieces created in kitchens to the tonnage required to disrupt (steps that are known as Technology Ready Levels).

At etsaW, we take the circular view (also one of the fundamental laws of physics) – where matter can neither be made nor destroyed. We shift the outlook to where products just become blips in the life of materials, and waste streams are no longer seen as a burden but as raw material flows.

We know the importance of the waste management sector in the circular economy and see the potential for major collaboration.

This is the vision of etsaW Ventures. We look at materials from fish processing waste and decommissioned body armour to electronic tech metals in WEEE, and new strong fibres made from paper-making waste. We are focusing on resource recovery materials and new materials for circular supplies.

We know the importance of the waste management sector in the circular economy and see the potential for major collaboration. You shouldn’t launch something novel without building the system to re-capture, recover and reuse or regenerate, though it still seems that most do, and usually the waste managers are the last to hear about it (or see it as it starts to appear at the MRFs).

A case in point is carbon fibre composite, a super-lightweight, super strong material that took 50 years to go from lab to trusted material. If only they had also used that time to work out how to recover it back into itself, we would be laughing. All this requires system thinking and collaboration. Whether it’s extracting a new material from waste or capturing the existing, there is a massive role for this sector. And at etsaW Ventures this is the intersection we work at.

What are etsaW’s plans?


For anyone working on circularity-oriented solutions to global, whole-of-society challenges, finding “patient capital” is not easy. Too much of the venture capital available is still built on the assumption that there will only be a few unicorns in a large field of failure.

Facing the defining challenges of our current global circumstances, this traditional “power law” driven venture capitalist strategy is just not very, well, sustainable. You could see it as a wasteful strategy, the waste being start-up companies that fall by the wayside.

etsaW Ventures is built on a relatively new “venture studio” business model that works with a smaller number of external very early start-ups and internal business builds over a year and grows with them, knowing that we will be there for longer.

The studio’s decisions on where we invest are led by a deep understanding of global future needs, insight into full value chain potentials and waste-to-resource management strategy. We come in early to help grow early businesses and build compelling narratives and assurances for later-stage investments.

The etsaW Venture studio offers an alternative approach that adds deep knowledge with access to whole value chains and relevant talent. This gives us an extra understanding of where the genuinely good ideas are. This more circular approach to early-stage risk capital is needed to fund the circular economy where success often lies in more symbiotic relationships, less obvious supply chains or reverse logistic setups.

etsaW Ventures convenes waste, circular and commercial expertise in a unique way and we have a big vision.

etsaW Ventures convenes waste, circular and commercial expertise in a unique way and we have a big vision. Through our experience over the years, we understand that a network built of disrupters, entrepreneurs, scientists and makers requires access to each other in a curated way.

This includes physical spaces in which to operate and have face-to-face interactions. These places represent “safe spaces” for difficult conversations, for hacking and prototyping new methods, for experimenting and failing and evolving to experiment again.

Originally called “skunkworks” by the American aerospace manufacturer Lockheed, the term refers to a group of people brought together “for the sake of radical innovation”. At etsaW Ventures, our vision is set for radical innovation to build businesses that have the impact we need and have the ambition to provide the space for innovation to take off. In the space of early-stage circular material start-ups, this is a global first.

Got something to say on this article or topic? Submit your views and contact the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk.

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