According to the United Nations University, 40% of Europe’s electrical products end up in landfill when they are no longer needed. And yet this huge mountain of e-waste thrown away each year contains 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper and 300 tonnes of gold. A new €2.1 million EU-funded project has been launched to do something about it, with the UK, Germany, Italy and Turkey agreeing to work together to find a solution.
Sadly, it’s an all-too familiar tale. The linear model of ‘take-make-waste’ still dominates consumer behavior and the way in which businesses operate, regardless of sector. Have a think about how many unused tins of paint are sitting in your shed right now, only to be thrown away when you have your next clear-out. Scary, eh?
The aspirations, ethos and good business sense behind circular economy thinking – where waste doesn’t exist and the value of products, processes and materials stays within the value chain for much longer – is needed today more than ever.
Of course, it is nothing radically new; previous incarnations range from ‘cradle-to-cradle’ and ‘design for life’ concepts to ‘blue economy’ and ‘industrial ecology’.
But circularity seems to have really caught the imagination and is inspiring a new way of doing things. Closing the loop on materials and resources is not just about dealing with waste. It’s also about saving money and building stronger economies based on more resilient and sustainable companies. A recent study by Sheffield University suggests that by 2020 the European economy will have lost around €3.7 billion by not making the most of the materials found in e-waste.
The Opportunities are Abundant
At AkzoNobel, we are at the start of our own circular journey, having been involved in a number of initiatives that are driven by this new type of thinking. As a chemicals business, we believe that there is much we can do to support this new economic model; after all, if you want to be able to re-use materials effectively you will need chemicals to do that.
We’re currently leading a major Dutch consortium to find out if waste can be used as a raw material to produce chemicals. Working with the Canadian company Enerkem, we are looking for ways to manufacture synthesis gas, using domestic waste as a feedstock for making products such as methanol and ammonia.
We have a similar agreement with the Dutch energy business Eneco. By retrofitting one of its biomass facilities to produce steam, as well as electricity, we’ve signed a 12-year deal to buy the ‘waste’ steam that would otherwise have been pumped into the atmosphere. It’s the type of thinking that will help us to reduce our CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons a year – around 0.1% of the Netherland’s total emissions footprint.
Elsewhere, a partnership with the renewable oil and bioproducts business Solazyme has enabled us to start the process of developing a long-term supply of renewable algae-based oils which could replace both petroleum and palm oil-derived chemicals altogether. These are exciting times.
And it is not just upstream that we find these opportunities. Our people are being inspired by what is possible to also help our customers become more circular and less wasteful. In the UK, we are exploring a new business model based on the collecting and processing of residual paint, which will see us selling recycled paint. Meanwhile, our ReColour initiative is looking into how we divert huge volumes of leftover colored paint from landfill to recycle it for reuse in communities and charity spaces.
Our paints and coatings are being used to improve energy efficiency in buildings, reduce friction of ships in the sea to cut fuel use, and boost durability of bridges by protecting underlying substrates, so rather than lasting 20 years, they last 100 years.
As you might have noticed from these examples, no one business is able to close loops or build circularity into their operations by themselves. Partnerships, with other companies, government bodies, charities and consumers, have been crucial and will continue to be so. Small, entrepreneurial start-ups that have a great idea and can supply companies like AkzoNobel with renewable raw materials should be welcomed with open arms. None of this is about philanthropy; the economics have to stack up. But if the opportunity is right, big business can guarantee to source materials for up to five years, for example, giving these young companies a chance to get their financing in place – and to be a key part of this circular economy.
This is a new way for us to build our economy, based on innovation and sustainability that will ensure we have a healthy planet for ten billion people in the future.
Waste does not exist. It is time we used our brains to find another way.