From Our Members

Greentech start-ups leading the way in the circular economy  

As environmental awareness among consumers continues to grow, there is a pressing need to transition away from the current linear “take-make-waste” economic model. Among the most promising solutions, the circular economy is a transformative approach that decouples economic growth from the depletion of finite resources.  

The circular economy addresses critical global challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss, by promoting the continuous use and reuse of products and materials. It gives us the tools to boost the economy, create jobs, and increase efficiency, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.  

In the following sections, we’ll delve into the fundamentals of the circular economy and spotlight some remarkable female founders we’ve supported through Village Capital’s Greentech Europe program. Their innovations are pivotal in facilitating this transition at every cycle phase. 

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a leading advocate for Circular Economy principles, defines it as a system in which materials are perpetually reused, preventing waste and nurturing the regeneration of nature. Materials are split into two cycles: the Technical Cycle and the Biological Cycle.  

The Technical Cycle

The Technical cycle is focused on materials that do not naturally decompose, such as precious metals and plastic. These materials should be kept in the loop through Reusing, Repairing, Remanufacturing, and Recycling. These strategies help retain valuable resources in circulation, reducing their environmental impact.

1. Reusing: 

The first step in the Technical Cycle is reusing, sharing, and maintaining; it can significantly increase the lifespan of many products. 

The most popular example of this is tools. Surprisingly, the average power drill is used for just 13 minutes throughout its lifespan. This is a huge underutilisation, but community tool libraries offer a practical solution to address this. 

Icelandic start-up Munasafn RVK Tool Library, founded by Anna Carolina Worthington de Matos, is at the forefront of empowering community tool libraries. They’ve developed a self-checkout library system incorporating software and hardware solutions. This modular and scalable system can be implemented in libraries worldwide, prolonging the lifespan of goods and reducing waste. 

The sharing economy is also on the rise, valued at 113 billion US dollars and growing at 32 per cent CAGR, according to Analysis and Outlook Insights. As a result, we can expect more Tool Libraries, like the four operating in Iceland with the assistance of Munasafn RVKs technology, to pop up in cities near you. 

2. Repairing: 

The next phase of the cycle is repairing, which means restoring products to good working condition to prolong their usefulness. This can involve fixing or replacing parts, updating specifications, or improving their appearance. Repairs can be done either by individuals or by specialised professionals. 

There’s a significant development to note. In 2023, the European Commission introduced a directive as part of the Right to Repair movement. This directive aims to simplify and make it more cost-effective for consumers to repair their products rather than replace them. 

Many companies focus on extending product life through repair and refurbishment, and one standout is Repair Rebels, a German start-up that participated in the first-ever Greentech Europe cohort. Their goal is to make it easier for people to repair and maintain their clothing and shoes. They connect consumers with local alteration and mending services through a digital platform. 

Dr Monika Hauck, the founder, has a background in the fashion industry, and her experiences as a model and an activist against fast fashion inspired her to promote repair over replacement. Repairing your clothes can significantly reduce their carbon footprint by as much as 20-30 per cent over nine extra months of wear, according to WRAP UK research. It’s a practical way to be more sustainable with your wardrobe. 

3. Remanufacturing: 

Moving forward in the technical cycle, we come to the stage of remanufacturing. This step becomes necessary when products cannot continue in their current state and require more extensive refurbishment to be reusable. Remanufacturing is a process that entails re-engineering products and their components, bringing them back to a condition that matches or even exceeds that of a newly manufactured item in terms of performance. 

CIRCOULEUR, a French start-up founded by Mailys Grau, is an excellent example of effective remanufacturing. CIRCOULEUR specialises in manufacturing and selling recycled acrylic paints, revolutionising the paint manufacturing industry with a Circular Economy approach. Each year, millions of litres of unused waterborne paint, amounting to 28 million in France alone, are incinerated, resulting in significant carbon emissions. Simultaneously, vast quantities of raw materials are continuously extracted to manufacture new paints. CIRCOULEUR addresses this issue by repurposing discarded paint as a valuable resource to craft new, environmentally friendly paints, curbing resource wastage and reducing carbon emissions. 

In the past year, Circouleur successfully prevented the release of 495 tonnes of CO2 through their circular paints. They have recently secured 1.2 million euros in funding and partnered with the French waste management firm Veolia to expand their production and further reduce emissions. 

4. Recycling:  

In the final phase of the cycle, we have recycling. This means breaking down a product or component into its basic materials and turning them into new materials. While this process does erase the original time and energy invested in making the product, it preserves the value of the materials. 

ParaStruct, based in Innsbruck, is working to increase recycling in the construction industry. The company was started by a team of craftsmen, technicians, and scientists who were increasingly concerned about Climate Change, having witnessed its effect firsthand in their Alpine region.  

ParaStruct aims to decarbonise the construction industry and reduce resource inefficiencies using advanced 3D power-printing technology that recycles construction waste into high-quality materials. This technology can upcycle fine-grained material that was previously unusable, creating uniquely shaped facade elements, acoustic panels, and formwork. Essentially, ParaStruct’s technology can reform waste into any new product as required.  

Most recently, the start-up emerged as the EIT Circular Economy Prize winner, distinguished by its efforts to promote sustainability in the construction sector and minimise wasteful resource usage. 

The Biological Cycle: 

Now, let’s shift our focus to the other aspect of the Circular Economy: the Biological Cycle. In the Biological Cycle, the emphasis is on processes that rejuvenate nature by returning nutrients to the soil. This includes practices like Composting, Farming, and Cascades. All materials involved in the biological cycle can be safely reintroduced to the biosphere, encompassing all the Earth’s ecosystems where life thrives. 

1. Composting: 

Composting naturally breaks down organic waste using oxygen, water, and micro-organisms such as bacteria. It turns food leftovers and biodegradable materials into compost. 

Compostable packaging is one way we reduce waste and support nature’s renewal. However, in the absence of proper compost sorting facilities, it can lead to unintended consequences. Inefficient sorting often mixes compostables with other waste, which can contaminate the recycling, forcing it to be sent to landfills. It’s most effective in specific situations, like food and drink packaging, which significantly boosts organic waste recycling, currently at just 13 per cent. 

MakeGrowLab, led by Roza Brita, is a Polish company with a unique focus on producing nanofibers on a large scale. These nanofibers serve as the building blocks for creating compostable and plastic-free materials. Nanofiber is approved for food contact, making it a viable alternative to plastic-coated papers and plastic foils. It is an excellent example of how circular principles can be incorporated in packaging, as it is made from renewable resources that can be recycled at the end of its life without causing pollution.  

What’s interesting is that MakeGrowLab utilises microbes to transform local biowaste, effectively closing the loop in a sustainable biological process. Adopting nanofibre packaging by household brands would be a significant step forward in the fight against plastic pollution.  

MakeGrowLab is currently seeking funding to demonstrate the material’s positive impact before launching its products in supermarkets worldwide. “We believe that by partnering with smaller companies, we can make a positive impact and bring about meaningful change in reducing plastic usage and promoting sustainability,” says Roza Brita, the co-founder of MakeGrowLab. 

2. Farming:

Farming plays a crucial role in the Biological Cycle, allowing us to cultivate farms and manage other sources of biological resources like forests and fisheries in a manner that benefits nature.

Agreed Earth, a London-based company co-founded by Kelly Price and Sarah Power, is at the forefront of championing sustainable agricultural practices. This AgTech firm is dedicated to assisting farmers in reducing their dependence on nitrogen by implementing regenerative farming techniques. Regenerative agriculture places a strong emphasis on nurturing and sustaining soil health, allowing farmers to maintain their yields while decreasing nitrogen usage. It’s worth noting that approximately two-thirds of the carbon footprint associated with most crops stems from the nitrogen fertiliser used in their cultivation.

By curbing their reliance on nitrogen-containing fertilizers, farmers can make significant strides in reducing their emissions, given that Nitrous Oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide.

Agreed Earth employs cutting-edge remote sensing technology and data observation to aid farmers in monitoring nitrogen flow and identifying strategies to optimise nitrogen use tailored to their specific needs and environmental context. Agreed Earth recently secured funding through Innovate UK for its ‘Farming Futures R&D Fund: Climate Smart Farming’ program.

2. Cascades:

In this biological cycle, we cleverly tap into products and materials that are already in circulation within the economy. When these products or materials reach the end of their useful life, they transition to the outer loops of the biological cycle, ultimately finding their way back into the soil. This process can take various forms; for instance, it might involve repurposing agris-waste to craft new materials, or in the case of Seeds of Colour, utilising food waste to produce make-up.

Seed of Colour, a beauty biotech company in London founded by Anna Valle, stands out for using only natural pigments. While many pigments today come from synthetic chemicals, Seeds of Colour creates eco-friendly beauty products from green waste. They collect surplus waste, like organic fruits and vegetables from British farms, and use their proprietary technology to turn them into safe pigments for your skin.

These are just some of the 100-plus women-led startups in the Village Capital Greentech Program that are pioneering innovations in sustainability. Many startups are deeply committed to circular economy ideals, striving to minimise waste and combat climate change.

By keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, we can build regenerative natural systems and ensure that future generations have the resources they need to thrive. For additional information on the circular economy or to explore the inspiring innovations discussed in this article, check out the resources below.

This content has been produced in collaboration with a partner organisation through our Global Visibility Programme. Our programme helps companies boost their digital presence and strengthen the thought leadership of their experts. Find out more here.