As designers, we should always ask ourselves, are our design choices all destined to become waste, the inevitable result of the linear economy? Or could they actually be a part of something bigger and better, with an important ongoing role in the circular economy? A place where waste is a valued resource constantly deployed in a closed loop? At present, the evidence points to the opposite and that we’re heading in the wrong direction.
In the fashion industry, for example, almost all of our product materials are headed for landfill or the incinerator. The statistics are truly alarming. Today, we buy 60% more clothes than we did 20 years ago and we keep them for half as long. In this “fast fashion” era, it’s estimated that 92 million tonnes of clothing end up in landfill every year. That’s the “take-make-waste” economy in action and the impact it’s having on our world.
“Going circular” isn’t going to happen overnight. It involves a transition to a very different economic system where materials are endlessly recirculated like natural ecosystems, mimicking constant resource growth, turnover, and reuse, with zero waste. For today’s early circular-obsessed entrepreneurs, this emerging economy means a lot more than just recycling. It‘s reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, repurposing and regenerating materials and resources. And the economic possibilities are as huge as they are endless for long-term value creation, market innovation and expanded manufacturing opportunities.
The circular economy isn’t a familiar concept in Canada yet. At our March 31st event, DesignMeets hosted its “Circular Economy 101” information session to lay the theoretical foundations of circularity is and what the circular economy means for us. For a refresher, check out the session recording and summary of this event.
Today’s presentation is “Design and the Circular Economy Part Two,” a primer on what the circular economy means for entrepreneurs and running their businesses. Understanding the opportunities and putting them in motion. In this session, our panel of early-adopters – Dihan Chandra (DC), Kelly Drennan (KD), Scott Morrison (SM) and – talk about circularity, what it means for their respective industries, and how they’ve built circular frameworks into their business models.
Dihan Chandra is a serial entrepreneur creating innovations for sustainability and eliminating waste. He’s the founder of The Spent Goods Company, which works with organizations to recycle food by-products to reduce their carbon footprint and expense while generating new revenue streams.
One night at his local pub, he happened to wonder out loud where all the grain used to make beer went. After discovering that most of it, especially from smaller breweries, ended up in landfills, he felt inspired to change this, and The Spent Goods Company (SGC) was born.
It’s been estimated that about 16 million kilos (kilograms) of brewery grains ends up in landfill, which breaks down and releases greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. “What if we took those barley grains and reused them to feed people instead? Taking that same amount, we could feed every Ontarian 20 loaves of bread every year,” says Chandra.
This is being done by working with local food manufacturers and connecting them with local businesses to transform barley grains into viable food products, demonstrating how we can improve the local economy by following a circular approach – taking output from one business and providing it to another to transform spent grains into delicious bread products. SGC’s next step is to offer local grocery stores, food delivery companies and online farmers markets the sales and marketing support they need to find their markets and connect with customers.
Since the company started just over three years ago, over 134,000 loaves of bread have been sold, diverting spent grains from landfill, and offsetting the equivalent of 5.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. SGC works with 26 local businesses, creating jobs for the local community and helping to reduce climate change in the process.
From the world of fashion, Kelly Drennan is a thought leader and disruptor committed to bringing change to fashion. In 2007, she founded Fashion Takes Action (FTA) to create a better, more sustainable world for her two daughters. At FTA, her role is to identify the barriers to sustainability for both the industry and consumers and to come up with strategies for overcoming them. She’s the co-author of Canada’s Textile Recycling Report and leads a national stakeholder group in a mechanical textile recycling pilot.
Making fashion circular and managing the waste generated from clothing is a big challenge. “Fast fashion is largely to blame,” says Drennan, “it’s like fast food. Cheap, accessible, and really not very good.” Fast fashion companies are putting out up to 3,000 styles a day, which has led to overconsumption where 92 million tonnes of clothing have ended up in landfill, the equivalent of a garbage truck of textiles being dumped or incinerated every second of every day.
In our linear economy, the fashion industry is designing clothes destined for obsolescence – buying them, wearing them, washing them, and throwing them away when they’re no longer wanted. By contrast, in the circular economy, design is a key element in creating longlasting products that are easier to recycle, and includes issues such as zero waste, pattern making and production, repair, resales and, eventually, recycling.
The co-author of Canada’s textile recycling feasibility report, Drennan has also looked into different aspects of textile waste – volume, composition, categories, and sources – as well as conducting a technical review of sortation and current chemical and mechanical recycling technologies. The report presented a total of 22 recommendations to the federal government for supporting a new textiles economy, including the launch of a textile recycling pilot. Right now, Canada has the infrastructure for mechanical recycling of textiles but chemical recycling – garment to garment recycling – is about 10 years away. As we currently have around 500,000 tonnes of post-consumer textile waste in Canada’s landfills, this is clearly a problem that she says needs to be addressed now.
Scott Morrison works in the food and beverages sector to take reusable packaging mainstream, to show definitively how the circular economy has all the consumer conveniences but also reduces carbon emissions, water use and waste. He’s the Partner for Development Canada with Muuse which is a digital reusable packaging system that provides free and convenient reusable takeaway containers to consumers. He is also the co-founder of DreamZero, a social enterprise to develop reuse systems for events.
Muuse was founded in Singapore and is currently in use in Hong Kong. It’s one of the most successful app-based multiple use reuse systems in the world. “It’s like the library of reusable cups,” says Morrison. “Basically, you download the app, pick out a cup, scan the QR code on the cup or container, then it belongs to you for up to 30 days.” After that, it can be returned to one of the 25 participating locations in Toronto, which will double to 50 outlets by the end of July.
The app has undergone changes over the last year. Customers can now return on behalf of friends and there will soon be a batch scan feature available, allowing consumers to take out as many cups and containers at one time at absolutely no cost. Currently, Muuse uses doubled walled stainless steel cups with polypropylene lids with a silicone strip seal. These materials were chosen because they’re recyclable in Canada and the company maintains ownership, so they can eventually be resold at the end of their useful lives.
From the point of view of design, the cups have no moving parts, making them easy to clean and ensuring they are sanitary. It is a steel cup that keep coffee warm and is 90% recyclable at the end of its lifecycle. The company’s food containers went into circulation a little over a month ago, are durable and have a flip lid to keep the contents secure.
From the system design perspective, Toronto has opted for a decentralized model (as opposed to a centralized hub system) where participating restaurants and cafes have dishwashers in place to wash returned inventory and allow for its efficient reuse. Returning to the library analogy, Morrison says it’s more efficient to return books to the source library rather than going to a central location where it would need to be redistributed.
What was it like starting a circular business from scratch?
DC: The main thing that I focused on was food waste and working with companies where it is not part of their core business. What we do is physically go there once they’ve finished a particular process and take it as any other in a food safe manner. This is how the Earth operates, so that nothing is ever wasted. It’s a natural progression and, as an entrepreneur, it was just a matter of going to like-minded people with the same values.
KD: I started my business 15 years ago and circularity has been around for about six years. When COVID-19 happened, it exacerbated some of the issues around waste and overproduction. When everybody and the economy basically came to halt and nobody was buying. It brought a positive look to our wardrobe to see how much we didn’t really need. So, there have been some behavioural shifts and our thinking has changed but it hasn’t impacted us as much as the work we’re doing and we’ve been happy to continue that on Zoom.
What strategies are effective when dealing with non-green customers and industries?
DC: From the consumer point of view, I try to go after the low-hanging fruit as opposed to trying to convince somebody of the value of reusing different things. People recognize that we’re wasteful generally, so we’re making arguments that basically resonate. And when it comes to larger organizations, we’re trying to make the case to people who might only look at the profit lens.
KD: I would add that I would speak more to industry because there is a lot of work that needs to be done as far educating about waste and the way charities have been messaging to consumers about only donating items that re in good condition. What’s emerging is a starting point on sustainability and that’s exciting.
What can designers, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens do to help drive this circular economy?
KD: I think we have responsibility as consumers. We need to look inward, at our own habits and personal consumption patterns, how we care for our clothes and what we are doing with them when we feel we no longer need them. Innovations and new technologies. There are a lot of opportunities emerging in Canada for us to develop in these areas. We’re seeing this happen in the U.S. and in Europe and there are similar developments emerging here. If you’re someone who feels that climate change and creating local jobs is important, the Circular Economy offers a great opportunity to do something about it. So, explore your options, it is a great place to start.
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