Catherine Weetman interviews the inspiring people who are making the circular economy happen. We explore how circular, regenerative and fair solutions are better for people, planet and prosperity. We’ll hear from entrepreneurs & business owners, social enterprises, and leading thinkers. You’ll find the show notes and links at www.circulareconomypodcast.com, where you can subscribe to updates and useful resources.
98 Barry O’Kane – Software as a circular enabler
39:21It’s episode 98, and Catherine Weetman is talking to Barry O’Kane about software, one of the key enablers for circular economy solutions. Barry O’Kane founded HappyPorch, a software engineering specialist and consultancy (and now a certified B Corp) in 2015, and I met Barry a few years ago when he asked me to help him find examples of software that was supporting circular economy strategies. Barry interviewed a few of those companies for Happy Porch Radio, and has featured many more software-related circular businesses on his podcast. Today, Barry and I discuss the trends that he’s seeing, as businesses and developers start to build software solutions to support circular economy business models and recovery systems. Barry explains the importance of context-specific solutions, and outlines some of the software related barriers that are making it difficult for bigger businesses to adopt circular systems and processes. He also explains how software can help you get a much better understanding of the current system, and what the possibilities might be. We talk about the potential uses of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, including visual Machine Learning, and about blockchain, and Barry shares his lessons learned from seeing businesses trying to get started with circular solutions. Barry talks about infrastructure software, which in this context means software to help business organizations perform basic tasks such as business transactions, supply chain management, workforce management and other internal services and processes.
97 Alice Mah – unpicking plastics propaganda
49:26IT’S EPISODE 97, and today we’ll be talking about plastics, a familiar circular economy topic, from someone with a someone with a less familiar background… Alice Mah is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, in the UK, and she’ll help us unpick the propaganda about plastics and their role in a circular economy I came across Alice’s work when IEMA’s Transform magazine interviewed her about her latest book, Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It. I’m a member of IEMA, which is the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. Alice unpacked some of the ways the plastics industry is trying to improve our perception of plastics, including how it tries to reframe the circular economy as a recycling issue. She highlighted other worrying aspects of how the petrochemicals industry is operating, and we’ll hear some of those. Spookily, a few weeks later, on the same day I’d emailed Alice to invite her on, I was in the kitchen half-listening to BBC Radio 4’s sociology programme, Thinking Allowed, and up popped Alice, being interviewed about the ways the plastic industry uses its corporate power to influence our thinking around plastics. Alice Mah holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and was Principal Investigator of the large-scale European Research Council project “Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry” from 2015-2020. Her research focuses on environmental justice, corporate power, and the politics of green industrial transformations. Her next book the is Petrochemical Planet: Multiscalar Battles of Industrial Transformation. In today’s conversation, I’ve asked Alice to help bust some myths around plastics and their potential role in a circular economy… Myth #1 Plastics can support a Net Zero economy Myth #2 Plastics are safe – in other words, it’s wrong to link plastics to health issues Myth #3 Plastics are essential for our quality of life Myth #4 Exporting plastic waste to low-income countries helps the country, and/or the local people, create value from that plastic Myth #5 Plastic recycling can play an important role in the circular economy.
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96 Nick Oettinger – keeping mattresses in circulation
49:41Nick Oettinger is Founder and CEO of The Furniture Recycling Group (TFR Group) in the UK. Nick has 12 years’ experience in recycling and waste management. He was previously Managing Director of a specialist construction company before moving into the waste and recycling sector, where he spent five years as an improvement consultant and nine years in product recycling. The Furniture Recycling Group (TFR Group) provides mattress recycling, rejuvenation and collection, working in the UK with bed retailers, local authorities, home delivery companies and waste management sites to keep mattresses and their materials in circulation. They rejuvenate and recycle over 10,000 mattresses each week, and are responsible for diverting nearly 9% of all UK mattresses away from landfill. We’ll hear how online retailing has transformed the market for mattresses, and led to increased levels of returns. Nick explains the complexity of mattress designs, and how TFR Group is going beyond recycling to help its customers recover more value from unwanted mattresses. Nick describes the broader circular services and advice offered to The Furniture Recyclng Group’s clients, and what makes mattresses such a challenging product to reuse or remake, including barriers created by our sub-conscious perceptions.
95 Simone Andersson – social value from circular e-waste solutions
38:41Simone Andersson is Chief Commercial Officer at WEEE Centre, a Kenyan social enterprise that’s been expanding safe e-waste management and circular solutions across East Africa, since 2012. Simone’s background is in communication and sustainability action around waste and water management, and before joining the WEEE Centre she was at RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden), where she led innovative developmental projects on resource efficiency, circular economy systems, traceability, precious materials and various solid and liquid wastes. Her mission is to create awareness about the possibilities and prosperity of Green Business and Clean Tech. The WEEE Centre focuses on people, planet and prosperity, in particular by helping young people improve their social and economic circumstances. It’s aiming to expand the collection infrastructure to cover all Kenyan Counties and to increase local recycling by bringing more advanced technologies. It also wants to reach other African countries, starting with neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. By 2019, the WEEE Centre had recycled more than 10,000ntons of e-waste, serving over 8,000 clients across Africa, and creating hundreds of jobs. It became the first and only e-waste management organization to be ISO certified with multiple awards. WEEE Centre has the capacity to recycle all types of e-waste, and has trained many other African countries on safe e-waste recycling. We’ll hear about the operational complexities, some of the collaborations and partnerships they’ve fostered to overcome the challenges of being a relatively small enterprise, and how they’re trying to make sure they create value-adding circular flows, rather than focusing on recycling.
94 David Peck – navigating the risk of Critical Raw Materials
1:04:50David Peck, Associate Professor at TU Delft, explains why we need to know more about critical raw materials - what they are used in, and how we might navigate the future challenges they present. David Peck is Associate Professor, Climate Design & Sustainability, Circular Built Environment and Critical Materials, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). David researches and teaches in the field of circular design, focusing on remanufacturing and critical materials. He is a founding member of the Circular Built Environment Hub and works cross disciplinary on circular challenges, in particular on digital, ICT, mobility and renewables fields. David explains how critical raw materials are defined, helping us understand why they are ‘critical’ from the perspective of different countries or regions, and how they are assessed and scored. We discuss the pressure on CRMs, particularly from the perspective of low-carbon technologies, and how this presents ethical dilemmas around ‘fair shares’ for countries, and even across different industry sectors. I ask David about the conversations he’s having with businesses and policymakers, and whether he’s noticing positive trends towards a good understanding of CRMs, and a recognition of the complex issues and risks. We discuss the ethics and other issues around mining, and David unpacks the dangers of over-simplifying the arguments for avoiding more mining.
93 Guglielmo Mazza – helping communities refuse packaging waste
50:19Guglielmo Mazzà is an environmental engineer and social entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of ReFuse, a social enterprise based in Beirut [Lebanon] that offers community-based solid waste management services. Guglielmo worked in development initiatives and humanitarian response in the field of water, sanitation, hygiene and financial inclusion, across Europe and Africa. His passion is combining equitable access to resources with ecosystem justice and restoration. ReFuse has a mission to work with underserved communities, enabling them to sort recyclables and get rewarded for it. ReFuse says: “Where most people see a pile of waste, we see opportunities to improve the lives of vulnerable people. Secondary raw-materials have an unexploited value.” Guglielmo explains some of the issues faced by many people living in Beirut, where approximately one-third of the population are migrants, with many living in temporary tented communities. Poverty, inequality and lack of government funds are big issues, and there is a lack of basic infrastructure, including a reliable electricity supply. We hear how the ReFuse operation works, how they’ve expanded the range of materials they can recycle, and what they do with it all. We find out what motivates people to bring their recyclables along to the ReFuse stations – surprisingly, for many people, it’s not about the cash.
92 Elmar Stroomer – circular textile solutions in Africa
48:42Elmar Stroomer is the founder of Africa Collect Textiles (ACT). Africa Collect Textiles does exactly that – collecting used textiles across Africa, for reuse, recycling and upcycling. Elmar Stroomer has a strong background in the circular economy and design, and lived in Kenya and Uganda between 2012 and 2017 to get Africa Collect Textiles up and running. Now, Elmar is working full time on the expansion of ACT in Kenya and Nigeria. ACT aims to develop solutions to end the textile waste issues across Africa. It distributes free and affordable clothing to underprivileged communities, and currently has over 40 collection points in Nairobi and Lagos for used textiles. It provides employment to more than 50 people, who help collect, sort and upcycle fashion waste, used uniforms and off-cuts, creating products such as rugs, backpacks, toys and much more. On top of this, for every kilogram of used textiles it recycles, Africa Collect Textiles (ACT) donates 10 Kenyan shillings to charity. We hear about how fashion waste imported from the global north has undermined the existing textile and clothing sector in Kenya, and why Elmar decided to create a circular economy for locally produced textiles. Elmar tells us about some of the circular initiatives that ACT has set up, including repurposing workshops, services for resellers that overcome some of the major issues with the system for reselling imported end-of-use textiles, and innovative ways of repurposing end-of-life clothing for local businesses.
91 Michael Smith – Investing in regenerative startups
47:56Catherine is talking to Michael Smith, General Partner of Regeneration.VC, an investment fund set up earlier in 2022 that is investing in solutions addressing the climate emergency. The Regeneration.VC advisory board includes Bill McDonough, one of the early and leading thinkers on the circular economy, and co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The board also includes Leonardo di Caprio, Academy Award®-winning actor, producer, and activist, and a longtime champion of global environmental issues. Michael explains how Regeneration.VC is focusing on potential game changers - for example, those using biomimetic approaches to innovation for materials, or on new recycling technology – and why it’s important to focus on regenerative innovations, as well as circular models. We hear about Regeneration.VC’s investment strategy, which looks at new ventures through 3 lenses: design (systems and materials inspired by natural processes), use (circular brands and products) and reuse (technologies repurposing materials and products). Michael shares highlights of a few of the companies in the portfolio and explains why he thinks they are such exciting investments.
90 – Does circular mean it’s sustainable?
26:16Does circular mean it’s sustainable? Or, are companies just using circular economy solutions to grow their business (and their footprints)? In this episode, I want to shine a light on something that’s been worrying me. Over the last few years, I've come to realise that the circular economy is not fit for purpose. It’s not helping create the future we need. Instead, it’s being watered down, and cherry picked. I’m seeing increasing numbers of businesses and policymakers choosing strategies that ARE circular - but aren’t improving sustainability. I’m going to be talking about loopholes, rather than loops… I think we’re at a critical turning point. We need to evolve the circular economy into a framework that supports the future we want – the future we know is possible. If we don’t, we’re letting all our work, our innovations, our struggles, go to waste. (And you don’t need me to remind you that waste shouldn’t exist in a circular economy!)
89 Simon Hombersley – plastics from plant protein
47:05Simon Hombersley, CEO of Xampla, shares the story of how this Cambridge University spin-out has created the world’s first plant protein material for commercial use, pioneering the replacement of the most polluting plastics with natural alternatives. Xampla’s ambition is to become the leader in natural polymers, and it’s been developing its natural polymer resin over the past 15 years. The polymer, which Xampla describes as a breakthrough material, performs just like synthetic polymers, but decomposes naturally and fully without harming the environment at the end of life. Xampla is the first UK University spin-out to be awarded B Corp status and is working with multi-national companies, including Britvic, Gousto and Croda on new technologies.