A circular economy without digitisation is not possible

It’s no exaggeration to say that by now, digitisation has extended to all facets of life, including the waste economy. And yet when one thinks of waste and recycling, innovative digital technologies and smartphone apps are not the first thing to come to mind. Instead, it’s garbage trucks and landfills. But the circular economy is permeated with digital technology already, and several start-ups have discovered further new business areas, ensuring that digitisation will continue to find its way forward in this sector as well.

Online platform counteracts surplus building materials

But what does digitisation in the circular economy look like, exactly? Consider the construction sector, which in many countries is responsible for by far the largest fraction of waste generated. In Ireland alone, 3.8 million tonnes of waste are produced each year through the construction and demolition of buildings, despite the fact that a few years ago, there was a sharp decline in the sector due to the economic crisis. While this initially resulted in noticeably less waste, the numbers are on the rise again. Simply building less is not a viable long-term option. Our only hope is to use resources and materials more efficiently and to develop a sustainable circular economy.

The team behind restado in Germany concluded precisely that and then developed a clever solution for the construction industry. Since 2015, leftover building materials can be bought and sold digitally via the restado sales platform. You can find anything here, from windows, bricks, and concrete to wood tiles and insulation materials. Up until now, mistaken orders and surplus purchased for private or commercial construction projects only in order to meet high minimum quantity requirements have too often ended up in the trash. With restado, even small amounts can be offered online, helping avoid tonnes of environmentally harmful waste. Thanks to this simple yet effective idea, restado was a finalist for the 2016 Green Alley Award, a European start-up competition for the circular economy.

A digital step forward in food waste reduction

As the term itself suggests, the circular economy does not begin with recycling; it aims, rather, to reduce waste from the outset. Digital business solutions offer a great way to keep waste levels low. The example of the construction industry can be applied to the food industry in a similar manner so that here, too, waste on a large scale can be avoided with the help of digital solutions.

Take Christoph Müller-Dechent, the founder of FoodLoop, who has resolved to reduce daily food waste in supermarkets. Every day, at least two shopping carts full of still-edible groceries are thrown away per supermarket branch in Germany. That’s why his start-up, founded in 2014, has developed an app that offers products at reduced prices shortly before their expiration dates and helps users find those products easily. To this end, FoodLoop links the merchandise management systems of the supermarkets with a tool for consumers. It’s an idea with great potential, thought the international Green Alley Awards jury members, who were so impressed by Müller-Dechent’s business idea, they crowned him a winner in 2014.

It’s not just in supermarkets that the tide of food waste can be stemmed using digital means. Another Green Alley Award finalist turns its eye toward the waste that can be avoided in restaurants. The Finnish start-up ResQ Club has developed an app that gives users the opportunity to find leftover food in their neighbourhood and purchase it at a favourable price. By its own account, the company has saved more than 65,000 kilogrammes of food since 2016. That this concept is in demand and has international potential is demonstrated by the merger of ResQ Club and Mealsaver, which was until recently pursuing a similar business concept in Germany.

Discard and recycle electrical and digital equipment properly

Start-up and 2015 Green Alley Award finalist Binee proves that scrap collecting can be fun with the help of digital technology. The company is improving the way electrical and electronic waste is collected by way of a smart trash can equipped with a camera system. The latter reads the label of the product thrown into the bin, then playfully informs the consumer via app about the disposal process of the old device. The consumer is also rewarded with incentives.

Another model company in the field of electronic waste is the Irish start-up Votechnik, which made it to the 2016 Green Alley Award finals. Founder Dr Lisa O’Donoghue has developed a machine that allows LCD flat screens to be automatically recycled in full, thereby preventing human contact with the hazardous substances contained in the screen. At the same time, her recycling machine is extremely economical; it can process 80 LCD screens per hour. Before O’Donoghue ventured into the business world, she headed a research project at the University of Limerick in Ireland. The business emerged from this project in 2011; today, it’s come so far that the official market launch is planned for this summer.

These days, we use mostly LED and plasma for our screens. But someday, even these technologies will be obsolete. When that time comes, they should be recycled accordingly – that is, without endangering the environment and human health. According to an EU study, that is currently true for only a third of the total e-waste generated.

Good ideas need support from all sides

The companies mentioned above are taking a big step forward in the transformation towards a circular economy. But to really bring about the kind of social change that will transform our previously linear economic system into a truly circular economy, politics, big business, entrepreneurs, and consumers must act in concert.

Ron Immink, patron of the 2017 Green Alley Award, entrepreneur-in-residence for Sustainable Nation, and founder of Small Business Can and business achievers, sees initiatives like the Green Alley Award “as a great opportunity for Irish pioneers to effect change in the field of the circular economy with their solutions – digital or otherwise. Here, they can show that money can be earned with sustainable solutions. The circular economy is a fundamental topic that’s becoming more and more important in many areas of life. We can’t leave it to politicians to set the course alone.”

Since 2014, the award has been granted annually by an international jury of circular economy experts and start-ups. The call for this year’s Green Alley Award has already been tendered. Digital pioneers from all over Europe are invited to apply!

About the Green Alley Award:

Green Alley supports young founders and start-ups contributing to the circular economy with their ideas. Applications for the Green Alley Award are due by 25 July 2017. More information can be found at www.green-alley-award.com.


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