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Circular economy innovation challenge for students at Bristol and Zhejiang Universities

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

By Naji Makarem & Andreas Beavor

At UrbanEmerge we’ve recently been exploring viable circular economy solutions for a range of clients. For the GSMA’s Mobile for Development programme, we’ve researched the role of digital solutions in improving efficiency and circularity in plastic waste management. For the CDC Group, the UK Aid funded impact investment company, we’ve developed a Frontier Issues Paper on circular economies, to help influence their unpdated investment strategy and Code of Responsible Investing for the next five years. With UNIDO, we’ve developed a green and circular poverty graduation strategy for Sindh province in Pakistan, as part of a EUR 50million programme funded by the EU.

Source: Wix Photos

We have also just completed a pro-bono collaboration with the University of Bristol and Zhejiang University in China which we are excited to share with our readers in this blog. We were approached by the University of Bristol to design a client-led brief as part of their summer school module on Business in China, in partnership with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. Working closely with faculty partners at both universities we developed a brief for students to develop a new business concept through a circular economy lens.

So what are circular economy solutions and why are they so important?

According to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, a global thought leader in circular economy thinking and research, circular economies as based on the following 3 principles:

• Designing out waste and pollution,

• Keeping products and materials in use, and

• Regenerating natural systems.

Circular economies are an alternative range of modes of extraction, production, consumption and disposal of products across all sectors of the economy, from construction and infrastructure to manufacturing and agriculture. Much of the current economy is based on a linear economic/business model based on extraction, consumption and waste disposal in resource-intensive ways that degenerate our natural environments and destroy eco-systems and bio-diversity. A glaringly unsustainable linear stream of materials is plastics, which is leaking into our lands, rivers and oceans and polluting our natural eco-systems with micro-plastic and toxic chemicals that often end up in our food-chains. According to the Pew Foundation, at current rates we will have more plastic than fish in the sea by as early as 2040 (when measured by weight).

Our economies however also rely on non-renewable and scarce resources for construction and manufacturing, such as copper, steal, zinc and lithium to name a few. These limited resources are inherently an unsustainable source of material inputs into our economies due to their finite supply, growing and unlimited demand and devastating environmental impact if extracted at current projections. A circular economy model recognises the scarcity of these natural resources and thus their high value (rather than externalising the costs of extraction on the environment and people living nearby and imagining an unlimited supply).

These challenges can be met by transforming all the sectors of our economies into ecological and circular systems of production, use and disposal.

An ecological and circular closed-loop economy becomes feasible when materials are extracted extremely responsibly in a context of declining demand, when products are designed for user-friendly re-cycling and dismantling into constituent parts, and when farming becomes regenerative and sits in a well-balanced ecological system.

In order to give rise to ecological and circular economies new business models that source their inputs and design their products responsibly, enable companies to exchange by-products and waste, so that the bi-products and 'waste' products from one manufacturing process become the inputs of another process; and for consumers to conveniently feed their waste and end-of-use products back into the circular economy.

Ecological and circular-economy thinking we believe offers tremendous business opportunities, already giving rise to very new and lucrative business models such as sharing (think of bike-shares for many other products that sit idle most of the time) and product-as-a-service (leasing rather than owning, while guaranteeing quality, repair/replacement and convenience at an affordable price).

Students from Bristol and Zhejiang University were inspired by circular economy thinking and unleashed their creative and entrepreneurial minds on solving real-world environmental challenges through circular-economy business concepts. Six groups brought their diverse backgrounds together from China, the UK and other countries as well as a range of subject experience, to identify a problem and design a circular economy solution.

Their six presentations were well thought-out and creative, highlighting the business opportunities for circular economy thinking across industries. Their ideas spanned across the following sectors:

⁃ Packaging: more appropriately-designed and recyclable packaging that can be used by e-commerce companies.

⁃ Distribution logistics: to reduce the number of delivery vans congesting our roads and operating under-capacity.

⁃ Textiles: three ideas for re-using and re-cycling both used and unused clothes and diverting from land-fills. (Currently, one truckful of clothes waste is consigned to landfill around the world every second)

⁃ Bicycles: fixing and importing excess bikes from the numerous dockless bicycle schemes in China through a product-as-service model in the UK.

As UrbanEmerge partners, it was a privilege for Andreas Beavor and I to collaborate with the faculty and students of Bristol and Zhejiang universities and to hopefully inspire some of the next generation of entrepreneurs to adopt a circular economy lens in their future business ventures. Together, with the right perspectives, we can generate game-changing ideas for the greater good.

For more information about UrbanEmerge and how we can help your business or region develop ecological and circular solutions, please get in touch.

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