Winning with Waste

8 minute read

The eighth article of Earth Matters examines how innovative creators and ingenious brands are reframing the discourse on waste, turning it from burden to opportunity, from rubbish to resource. Can new beginnings be found by transforming discarded single-use goods into long-lasting products? Can a similar logic work for luxury products? Is there a way for brands to repurpose their own waste by-products to create new consumer experiences? And can cross-industry collaboration prove that one brand’s trash is another brand’s treasure?

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In an ideal world, there would be perfect balance between the resources we use, those we replenish and the waste we generate. But that isn’t (yet!) the world we live in. Today, Earth’s natural resources are being consumed at twice the rate they are produced, and it is estimated that by 2050 this could rise by three times.[1] Indeed, a few days ago (22 August 2020) we hit this year’s Earth Overshoot Day (the point where scientists say we’ve used all the ecological resources the planet can produce in 12 months).[2]

These figures become even more worrying when added to statistics from waste management innovator Sensoneo, which indicate that humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people.[3] And this isn’t just from consumers. Brands also play a large role: for example, Unilever quantifies its waste footprint in 2019 as 742 kilotonnes, composed of primary packaging, transport packaging and product leftovers.[4]

In other words, the human population is growing fast, consuming more and generating more waste than can be supported by our planet. But what if we could tip the balance back in the planet’s favour (and ours!), by revolutionising the way we view waste?

Because switching to renewable materials is only a part of the solution. Repurposing waste can offer a lucrative alternative strategy to bio-materials for designers, brands and businesses. And, in most cases, replacing virgin materials with waste is beneficial to the planet.

We say “in most cases” because scenarios focused on collection, recycling and disposal alone fall short of the social, economic and environmental outcomes we really need.[5] For example, although it is becoming popular to create clothing out of recycled plastic water bottles – as has been done by many sports brands – washing these items over time results in microfiber pollution in the waterways (for more on the importance of safeguarding our water, see A Watertight World.

Eternal life

Keeping good quality, beloved products in use for longer is a no-brainer – it’s good for the consumer, brand loyalty and the planet. Hence why designing for durability, reuse, remanufacturing and recycling are key components of the Circular Economy.[6]

But first we need to manage the challenge of our long-standing relationship and dependency on single-use products and throw-away packaging. This is where looking at the value of waste comes in handy. With a piece of single-use packaging, for example, most of its value is lost as soon as its main purpose is served (i.e. enticing the consumer to buy and protecting the product). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that, after a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging’s material value, i.e. USD 80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.[7]

Innovative brands are showing that environmental and financial gains can be made by turning once unrecyclable, single-use waste into materials and products designed to be in service over and over, for years, or even decades, to come.

Resourceful recycling

Terracycle is a trailblazer when it comes to turning trash into treasure, from cigarette butts and old pens, to crisp packets and baby food sachets. Terra cycle incentivise the collection of the “unrecyclable” through local, volunteer-lead drop-off points. The “unrecyclable” trash can be exchanged for points that translate to monetary donations for charities and schools. Terracycle then turns the trash into long-use plastic products such as park benches, bike racks, outdoor play equipment, watering cans and plant pots.

Beneficial brew

The Circular Cup (previously called the rCup) is a reusable coffee cup made from single-use cups, designed to last a minimum of 10 years. According to Circular&Co, discarded coffee cups have negative value, costing €110/tonne to dispose of them. When collected for recycling, their value increases to €40/tonne. When processed into a useful polymer, it shoots up to €1,300/tonne. And when the polymer is used to make a new product, its intrinsic value becomes €22,000/tonne.

 

Stick you your gums

Gumdrop was born to tackle the problem of chewing gum litter. The company developed Gum-tec, a process to transform all types of chewing gum waste into a valuable resource. Used gum is collected and put through a specialist recycling process to create a range of compounds for use in the plastics and rubber industry. These can work in existing manufacturing processes, such as blow and injection moulding, to make products like shoe soles, gum boots, packaging and phone cases.

Gumdrop

Luxury litter

The narrative of valuable waste might appear to be at odds with the world of luxury. After all, can trash, rubbish and litter ever coexist with elegance, pleasure and quality? The answer, as we also explored in an earlier edition of Earth Matters Rethinking Luxury – is yes. Meaningful storytelling, skilled craftmanship, curated aesthetics and the desire to stand out can be leveraged to make luxury and sustainability compatible, to turn trash into (metaphorical) gold.

Eau de Trash

On a mission to make “the most wanted scent made from the unwanted” and create harmony with Mother Nature, Parisian perfume house Etat Libre d’Orange has created a fragrance – Les Fleurs Du Déchet, “I Am Trash” – using fruit waste from juicing processes, as well as rose petals and cedar sawdust that have undergone primary distillation.

Etat Libre d’Orange

Green ride

Whilst developing the E-tron GT, Audi looked at the target market and realised that users of an electric vehicle want a more sustainable interior than is traditionally found in luxury cars. The new model therefore features a premium interior with vegan leather, recycled upholstery fibres and carpets made from upcycled fishing nets.

 

Phena candle

Phena makes circular, luxury aromatherapy candles by transforming cooking oil into wax. The oil is collected from plant-based restaurants around London. The candles are hand-poured, using 100% natural essences and responsibly sourced wooden wicks. The story and design speak of care, balance and wellness, for the user and also the planet.

Waste not want not

By-products from manufacturing and farming processes can prove to be a hidden bounty of beneficial by-products, even for those that generated them in the first place. Hence why discarded waste is now being used to augment performance and experience. Be it by creating intoxicating scents, enhancing flavour or maximising product potency, forward-thinking brands are using waste by-products to supercharge their offer.

Finding flavour

In a drive to become more sustainable, Starbucks has found a new use for cascara, the skin of the coffee cherry, which is a by-product of farming and is usually discarded or composted. The cascara is used to create a sweet syrup and velvety foam to top off the Starbucks Cold Brew coffee. Finding value in the undesirable and diverting it out of the waste stream allows Starbucks to offer a better, more responsible coffee drinking experience.

Starbucks Cascara

 

Cut it out

Making the iconic swoosh for Nike trainers results in material wastage, as the shape of the brand mark makes it unsuitable for optimal and efficient use of fabric. The latest SP20 Nike Atsuma shoe is designed to be more sustainable by utilising the fabric off-cut that remains when the swoosh is cut, to create the opposing swoosh. The rest of the trainer pattern has also been thought up to optimise negative space and maximise material usage.

The good stuff

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Resources Institute, food wastage accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.[8] To address this, Chicago-based cold-pressed juice brand RealGood Stuff ensures that whatever it doesn’t turn into juice (e.g. the peel and the pulp of fruits and vegetables), it puts back into the kitchen and uses it to make vegan cheese, snacks, frozen popsicles and even doggie treats.

 

Sharing is caring

As the saying (sort of) goes, one brand’s trash is another brand’s treasure, and when cross-collaboration happens between industries, designers, creators and companies, enormous value can be found in waste material streams that might otherwise be harmful to people, planet and profit.

The identification and redirection of these wasted resources can be challenging, but the emergence of digital tools and logistics software is helping pair an abundant supply with a newly discovered demand, thereby enabling companies to share and repurpose useful waste across industries.

Captured carbon

Graviky Labs capture and process carbon PM2.5, the airborne, harmful waste substance from traffic emissions, oil and solid fuel combustion. The carbon PM2.5 is turned into a safe, water-based ink. Air Ink has since been used by Heineken, for artist collaborations, and commercially in corrugated packaging.

Raise your dishes

Belgian cleaning brand Ecover manufacture ecologically sound cleaning products made from plant-based and mineral ingredients. Teaming up with a Belgian beer brewery, they have created a washing-up liquid made from 25% waste ethanol, packaged in a bottle made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic.

 

Building a future

And last but not least, Project Divert is a web-based app that reduces the volume of construction waste that is normally sent at cost to a conventional recycling facility. The tool helps sites identify materials that can be reprocessed, remanufactured or recycled back into the supply chain, or be donated to local communities.

Project Divert

 

The consumer demand for brands to do their part for sustainability – including better waste management – is clear, as nearly half of consumers are willing to forego a brand if they feel they aren’t doing their bit.[9]

However, the benefits to brands of rethinking waste materials and upcycling them into a new, better purpose isn’t purely altruistic: utilising waste as a resource benefits the triple bottom line, generating economic, social and environmental gains.

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