There are many items that we use every day but can’t dispose of properly. Meet the European startups working on circular economy solutions
Clothes made out of old cigarette ends, packaging that is grown from mushrooms, and mattresses that are recyclable instead of being thrown away. These innovative innovations were part the Green Alley Award 2023 cohort. This prize recognises Europe’s best new circular startups. The deadline for the 2024 competition is fast approaching. A top prize of EUR25,000 ($21,850) will be awarded. Take inspiration from these three budding startup companies that aim to reinvent hard-to-recycle products.
The recycling project that eliminates cigarette waste
Human Maple, an Italian project that began as a project to promote a better relationship between humans and nature through education and awareness, is now focusing on one of the most visible effects of our throwaway culture: cigarette end.
We’ve seen them thrown away carelessly in gutters and on pavements. Some estimates say they can last for more than a decade before they degrade, releasing harmful chemicals like arsenic, formaldehyde, and microplastics.
Human Maple founder Ali Benkouhail believes that the 4.5tn of plastic bottles thrown away every year is a treasure.
Benkouhail, in collaboration with the sustainable textile manufacturer New Mill in Tuscany, is repurposing cellulose acetate filter in cigarette ends into insulation padding for jackets, bedding and other clothing.
Benkouhail and co-founder Marco Boccia began working on the solution in their university years. “Initially, we wanted to solve the littering issue, but we then thought, why don’t we recycle cigarette butts in order to educate smokers ?”
Butts from ashtrays are collected in the smoking areas of 26 partner companies. The filters are then separated and cleaned, removing harmful chemical residues. Benkouhail hopes to see the first garments rolling off the New Mill production lines in 2024.
The startup that is making polystyrene obsolete
According to some estimates, the annual global production of expanded polystyrene is estimated at 11m tonnes. It’s one of the most common ocean pollutions, despite being rarely recycled. The sight of Bali’s beaches littered with polystyrene, and other plastics, was so heartbreaking that Julia Bialetska from Ukraine and her husband Eugene Tomilin came up with a solution.
They found it in a mix of waste hemp fiber and mycelium, the fast-growing root-like fungus used in everything from high fashion (as in vegan leather) to the food industry where it is a key ingredient for meat alternatives. It was the perfect organic glue for Bialetska & Tomilin to bind hemp straw.
S.Lab was a year old when Russia invaded the country, forcing the couple to relocate to Spain. Despite the turmoil they managed to win the top prize at Green Alley Award in April.
Clients are already using their 100% biodegradable alternative to polystyrene in order to be ahead of the EU directives, which will mandate that .
It feels like velvet, and has a premium look.
L’Oreal, a cosmetics giant, has used the material to cushion conditioner and shampoo packs. Sony and Samsung are exploring its use as a protective covering for TVs during transit.
“It feels like velvet, and it has a premium look,” says Bialetska. “But you can still tell that it’s natural.” It’s a great product.
Bialetska has been looking at other possible uses for its alt-polystyrene. These include thermal insulation panels. However, the current focus is on building a fully automated production system and scaling up. She says, “We want to become a player in the packaging market and then move on to other sectors.”
The bedding company tackles a sky-high problem
Here are some statistics to keep you up at night: in Europe, we throw out 13m mattresses every year. If stacked high, the mattresses would be taller than 20,000 Eiffel Towers. About 60% of them end up in landfill.
Austrian-based MATIa has come up with a solution. MATIa uses only two easily recyclable materials: steel and polyester. They also use a special adhesive that makes it easy to separate.
Michaela Stephen, co-founder, says that it’s a “click-on, click off” technology. This allows the parts to be easily separated at the end of their life and sent back to the pure material stream. “Once we reach a certain scale, which will be in a few more years, we can begin to reuse our own material.”
MATIa mattresses are not only 99% recycleable, but also have a 50% lower carbon footprint than conventional mattresses. The company is already receiving orders from the luxury market and has received positive feedback from customers.
Stephen says that in the new year, they will be testing recycled materials to make brand new mattresses. It’ll be a mattress-tomattress cycle. “The ultimate aim for us is the cradle to cradle approach .”
Human Maple Main Image