When I wrote this article, the first thing that crossed my mind was what Ken Webster, former Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation , told me when I interviewed him for my Master's dissertation. My question was: What is the role of entrepreneurs in the transition to a Circular Economy? His message was clear: "They are very important, because is where disruptive changes come from" and cited the example of bioMASON® a North Carolina startup that produces bricks from bacteria. In 2010, Ginger Dosier developed the bioMASON´s biotechnology inspired by the behavior of coral reefs, bacteria present in their walls enable the crystallization of calcium carbonate by generating pH changes in its surrounding. This startup is changing the game rules of conventional brick industry by offering an economically viable alternative with notable environmental benefits such as the non-use of fossil fuels, the use of natural and renewable raw materials and the recovery of materials at the end of use[i].
In the case of the Americas, more specifically in Medellin-Colombia, which by the way is a city with people with a great entrepreneurial spirit, there are also inspiring examples such as Bioestibas. They produce biodegradable pallets made of waste streams from flowers cultivation, usually this waste is incinerated generating air pollution, however, Bioestibas found a great solution to use this material as a valuable resource. Due to its design and composition, it is a suitable alternative to conventional wood pallets and meets industry performance standards.
Both examples show that the passion to find solutions to current sustainability problems together with a high entrepreneurial spirit allows to create disruptive innovations within the Circular Economy, going beyond the linear way of doing business. In this article, we define what circular entrepreneurship is, the opportunities to innovate with the circular economy principles in mind, and some recommendations on how to start developing circular start-ups. We hope this article inspires young people of the Americas to develop innovations to advance a Circular Economy on the continent.
What is circular entrepreneurship?
Firstly, let's start by understanding what we mean when we talk about circular entrepreneurship. As Daalderop T has suggested, a circular entrepreneur is "... an agent who promotes change and exploits opportunities for the purpose of doing business in accordance with the principles of the Circular Economy "[ii].
This definition can be complemented by other characteristics that I consider are important for circular entrepreneurship. I would define a circular entrepreneur as follows:
A circular entrepreneur is an agent that fosters the creation of a circular economy through innovative products, services and/or business models, who take risks and take advantage of new opportunities to create positive changes. A circular entrepreneur is a pioneer and inspires other entrepreneurs, organizations and even governments to make the transition to a circular economy, showing that the circular economy is possible. The solutions created by the circular entrepreneur are intentionally regenerative and impact positively the planet and humanity.
It is important to keep in mind that the actions of the circular entrepreneur are intentional, which means that since they begin to create a solution, they have the intention to provide positive impacts not only to the environment, but also to the economy and society. In addition, a circular entrepreneur innovates not only in products, but also in services and/or business models. Moreover, the circular entrepreneur is a change agent that inspires actions towards a circular economy.
What sustainability challenges represent circular entrepreneurship opportunities in the Americas?
One way to identify opportunities for circular entrepreneurship in the Americas is to be aware of the sustainability challenges that can inspire us to act. For example, if you are a person who is passionate about fashion, but not happy with the amount of clothes wasted annually (in Bogota, Colombia 360-600 tons of clothes are sent to landfill daily), you can start ideating which circular solutions you can implement. Currently, different projects and initiatives have been developed for sustainable and circular fashion. In general, some examples of opportunities that you can explore are: the development and/or use of biodegradable materials and harmless chemicals, the design of garments so that biological materials are easily separated from technical materials to facilitate its recovery at the end of use, the design of garments with a focus on durability and the implementation of leasing schemes.
Another interesting sustainability challenge is plastic pollution. According to the National Geographic, 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. Some initiatives seek to provide solutions to this challenge such as the European project ‘Upcycling the Oceans’ developed by ECOALF in the Mediterranean Sea, which is cleaning the oceans by recycling fishing nets and turning them into pellets, yarns and textile products to market. Another inspiring example is the replacement of Expanded Polystyrene with the EcoCradle® material developed by Ecovative, which is being used by the large furniture manufacturer IKEA.
These are some examples of how today's sustainability challenges can inspire us to develop circular start-ups, the question for you is which sustainability challenge inspires you to develop a circular entrepreneurship?
How to start developing circular business models?
One of the biggest steps to develop a circular business, as already mentioned, is to identify a sustainability problem that we are passionate about. This is important, because every start-up is nourished by passion because this allows us to commit to achieve the results we want. The second thing is, to have in place the innovation tools that allow us to identify solutions to the chosen problem. The Circular Economy Platform of the Americas is developing the tools that will facilitate this work, stay tuned, we'll announce its release soon! Another step that I consider is very important is to look for mentors who guide you in how to align your entrepreneurship to Circular Economy principles, through our Circular Economy Academy, which will be launched in the next months, you can get this mentoring. Finally, I think it is very important to have allies and partners who are just as passionate as you are about your circular entrepreneurship, this would be a great support for all the challenges that will appear when you are creating your business.
I really enjoyed writing this article, I am convinced that circular entrepreneurship is key for a circular economy transition. If you are interested in the tools we are developing, please do not hesitate to send us an email to email@example.com
Claudia Lorena García is an independent consultant in innovation and circular economy and currently leads some projects under the Circular Economies Program of the Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF). She is a chemical engineer and holds a master's degree in innovation management from the University of Bath, UK. Her master's thesis analyzed the challenges and opportunities for a Circular Economy transition in low-and middle-income countries in the Americas