Innovative Sustainable Materials, Products, and Production Methods are at the Forefront of the Circular Economy

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Nature doesn’t need a landfill. The waste of one species becomes the food of another. Plants and animals die and nutrients return to the soil to spur the next cycle of growth. Waste is minimal—or nonexistent—in the life cycle of nature.

Due to her efficiency, nature serves as the primary inspiration for the concept of the “circular economy” which focuses on minimizing waste by relying on renewable resources and designing waste out of the system. As Ashima Sukhdev, program lead for the Government and Cities Program at Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explained during a talk on the circular economy, “waste does not exist in nature . . . Why not redesign the world around us and make sure products are kept in reuse?" Yet, the circular economy stands in clear contrast to the current, dominant “linear economy,” in which products are made, used, and disposed of.

But the circular economy is no longer merely conceptual. From fashion to food to technology, sustainability efforts centered around the circular economy are leading companies to innovate in important ways to fight the battle against waste. In the process, they’re creating intellectual property in the form of reusable, recyclable, and compostable materials, products, and production methods that are driving profits.

Examples of Innovative and Sustainable Products and Production Methods

One of the major objectives of the circular economy sustainability trend is the elimination of single use products such as those made of plastic. Bolstering this trend are goals and mandates being established by companies and countries alike such as Whole Foods’ ban on straws as of July 2019 and Canada’s ban on single-use plastics by 2021.

To meet these objectives, businesses are finding ways to blend the old with the new—developing innovative materials based on natural, sustainable resources and eco-friendly production methods to create non-toxic, degradable, and in some cases reusable products. For example:

  • Edible straws made from rice-based material
  • Edible spoons made from materials based on millet, rice, and wheat flours
  • Plates made from materials utilizing wheat husks rather than plastic
  • Packaging made from innovative materials based on beeswax, sugar, and algae
  • Seaweed pods that hold liquid instead of plastic water bottles
  • Lego blocks made of sugar cane-based material
  • Sneakers made of vegan-friendly materials including eucalyptus, pineapple husk, and dried hevea milk
  • Mycelium-based material to create alternative meat products, biodegradable packaging, and animal-free leather

In addition, traditional paper is experiencing a comeback. Responsibly-produced and recycled paper is increasingly being used as a replacement for plastic by sustainability-minded companies given that it naturally decomposes and involves an easier recycling process. Metal and glass product packaging is being utilized so that it can be reused. Marine-friendly products (the subject of a subsequent article), many of which can be consumed by aquatic animals, are actively being produced. And sustainably grown materials, such as fabric made from pineapple and coconut fiber, are offering alternatives to cotton, which requires more energy, soil, and water to produce than the fruit-bearing alternatives. For example, it is estimated that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton for a single cotton shirt.

 

Opportunities to Innovate While Reducing Waste

The linear economy will not transform overnight, but innovators within industries are making strides to make the economy more circular. There is tremendous room for improvement, and big opportunities for businesses which can create sustainable products through new materials, green production methods, and renewable energy resources. To cite one example, the fashion industry currently is one of the major polluting industries in the world. It is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon footprint, second only to the oil and gas industry, and is the second largest polluter of local freshwater in the world. But innovation in materials, products, and production methods can help to reverse these trends. For innovation to occur and continue, businesses must develop and protect intellectual property that allows sustainable products to produce sustainable profits.