Circular Economy Innovations

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On the 15th of July, The Future Economy Network (FEN) and Future Leap hosted an online interactive event titled “Circular Economy Innovations”. Before the event began, the attendees enjoyed some pre-sessional networking.

Katherine Piper of Future Leap welcomed the attendees before giving an insight into The Future Economy Network, Future Leap and the many benefits of membership, as well as the upcoming Festival of Sustainable Business on the 21st of September. She then introduced the speakers:

● Eoin McQuone, Carbon Consultant at Future Leap and Founder of Sustainable Business Design

Dan Wright, Co-founder of Cancan Sharing Systems

Simone Aplin, Technical director at Anthesis

Eoin McQuone, Consultant at Future Leap and Founder of Sustainable Business Design

Eoin gave us an introduction to understanding the concept of a Circular Economy. In order to reduce carbon emissions, we need a new circular model: make, use, return. This model comprises 3 key principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

It’s important to keep technical and biological materials separate: biological materials must be returned in a way that leads to regeneration and technical materials must be sorted and dealt with.

Some examples of circular economy innovation include: making products repairable by the user, shared not sold (e.g. Boris Bikes), REPack reusable packaging, and Toast Ale made from surplus bread. The Circular Design Guide is a good place to start.

Q&A with Eoin:

Q: How do we get from where we are to where we need to be where this is a standard business model?

As ever, it all goes back to education but we can’t only rely on this. It takes everybody: businesses must adapt and governments need to set the right conditions.

Q: What are your thoughts on the carbon needs of reuse?

I think it is important to put the numbers on it. Reuse has got to go hand in hand with decarbonising transportation in order to be fully effective for the climate.

Q: Is there a complete end of life to plastic and if so what happens to it? Is there a danger that a circular economy could prolong plastic production?

Ultimately we need to find new materials and processes that are totally sustainable. It’s a debate over eco efficiency vs eco-effectiveness. Right now eco efficiency is easier but of course we have to then tackle the real issue. We have to try and get rid of hydrocarbon based plastics. It seems unlikely, however, that we can get rid of all plastics.

Dan Wright, Co-Founder of Cancan Sharing Systems

Cancan’s aim is to make sharing second nature so we can build a more inclusive and sustainable world. It eliminates waste without stopping people eating on the go and being spontaneous. The mission is to create a global digital ecosystem where things can be shared without waste.

It is an end to end, trackable and secure platform, accessed through an app. Customers are able to borrow reusable items, such as cups, for free. They order food and drink in the same way and the trader scans their QR code before giving them the item. The consumer then returns the item to a drop-off point where it is washed and reused. All items are tracked and have a unique code.

The app shows you how much carbon you are saving; it only takes 3 uses of a cup to start saving carbon. Cancan’s promo video can be viewed here:

Q&A with Dan

Q: What is the cleaning process and is it carbon neutral?

It is a hybrid system where some retailers clean the products on site and others front the costs of cleaning and transportation elsewhere. It will become more efficient as transport moves towards carbon neutrality.

Q: When asking for finance did people grasp the concept and the necessity of it?

The biggest challenge for us is being clear about our brand, our target market and our mission. It is starting to click now and people are getting it and realising the potential of the business.

Q: Is there scope for alternative containers as well as cups?

These are massive markets so we had to decide on our area, the hospitality market. We have identified retail in the refill market and have had conversations with Waitrose. The system is capable of working across multiple channels but we have to start somewhere.

Simone Aplin, Technical Director at Anthesis

Anthesis is a dedicated sustainability organization which exists to shape a more productive and resilient world by helping organisations transition to new models of sustainable performance. Waste data answers questions about what waste is being generated, where it is, how it’s being managed and what its ultimate fate is. It can be used to address waste crime and drive action.

The Smartwaste tracking project has emerged out of the government’s commitment to look into the feasibility of tracking all waste. It arises against a background of wider digital revolution in the waste sector. It will cover the entire UK and replace all current paperwork involved with waste by using QR codes rather than paper. All of this information can be used to really understand what’s happening with your waste and waste across the UK.

Q&A with Simone

Q: Do you envisage a circularity score?

It’s not the initial ambition but certainly the journey we are on. The data is going to be there in order to make it possible.

Q: How do you deal with the limits on bin numbers?

It’s not really possible to track individual items. It works because we know what goes into authorised waste management sites and when it moves on again to a producer. So we map (using markov chains) which are built based on historic site return and likelihood. There is also machine learning so mapping is refined as it works over time. We just need to know overall what goes in and comes out.

Q: Contamination is a problem with recycling, is there opportunity to police this?

We already have sampling of dry recyclables although it’s not refined enough yet to know what people have put in the bins.

Q: Are DEFRA still trying to decide on the eventual system that they are going to use?

The first phase was 5 companies which was whittled down to 2. Ours is based on structured data using all the data that already exists being digitised. The other prototype is very different. They have tried to use data science by collecting data from anywhere e.g. invoicing data, not structured data, which uses quite a lot of assumptions. Hopefully they will make a decision soon but we don’t know when exactly.

60 second pitches

To encourage networking, attendees made use of the 60 second pitch opportunity. Those who pitched included:

● Simon Whitehead, Zedify Bristol

● Mark Young, Mark Young Design

● Eleanor Akers, Innovative Energy Consultants

● Issy Cheung, Garrett Creative

Relevant Literature

The Circular Economy – A Wealth of Flows (2nd edition) by Ken Webster

A Circular Economy Handbook by Catherine Weetman

The Blue Economy 3.0 by Gunter Pauli


After a final round of networking, Katherine brought the event to a close, thanking all the speakers and attendees, which without our events calendar would not be possible.

Event Notes by Jessica Thomlinson-Blount, BA(Hons) Geography, University of Manchester.

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