February 8, 2022
The theme of the Kyoto session of the crQlr Summit was Materials for a circular economy, Circular economy for materials. An important concept in circularity is “cradle to cradle”. Our planet is the cradle of resources which we use to make things. Instead of disposing of the things we make, we must learn to reuse them as new resources. The lifecycle of materials is absolutely central to discussions around the circular economy.
We see many innovative examples of biomaterials, recycled materials, and transparency of material supply chains in the world today. The discussion in Kyoto focused on which of these materials have the potential to become the norm rather than the exception. And what are the roadblocks that prevent this from happening? These questions and more were explored in the judges’ keynotes and open feedback to the crQlr Award winners.
In the first part of the Kyoto session, two crQlr Awards judges introduced their own projects and the issues they face in their industry.
Ana is an artist and researcher in biomaterials. She began by telling us about a project to produce a new material from the leaves of yerba mate, a type of herbal tea popular in South America. Argentines each drink around 100 liters of yerba mate per year, with the total amount of discarded tea leaves weighing around 125 tons.
As well as sandals, lamps and accessories, the leaves can also be used to make bioplastic. Ana’s team has been using this bioplastic to prototype wearable electronic devices with Arduino. As it can be melted down with boiling water, the new material could help to reduce e-waste.
Ana was also involved in creating a facemask for dancers using recycled plastic bottles and caps. Tango dancers in Argentina had difficulty performing during the pandemic, so the new mask was designed especially for their needs. It comes with a silver nanoparticle filter and the size of the mask is adapted to the dancers’ sudden movements and heavy respiration.
Ana quotes the words of sustainable materials pioneer Carole Collet: Design has the power to change the world. Designers and creators have a social responsibility to make a difference in people’s lives. Each material also has its own story and emotional connection to people’s lives. Ana says she always tries to combine these principles in her projects.
Anita is the founder of ReBlend, a foundation in the Netherlands that is promoting a transition to circular textiles. After studying economics at university, Anita worked as a business strategy consultant for 15 years. She always found it disconcerting that every company would voice enthusiasm for sustainability, but then revert to business as usual.
Anita realized she needed to do something herself, so she started ReBlend in 2013 as a way to put sustainable ideas into practice.
ReBlend recycles old clothes, which are usually sent for incineration, into reusable textiles. One of their projects is a collaboration with an Italian denim manufacturer, using denim from recycled yarn. They already have a yarn made of 70% used garments and 30% recycled polyester, and the next challenge is to replace the polyester with a more natural alternative such as cellulose. ReBlend is also working to establish a circular economy for textiles in the north of the Netherlands, where the textile industry has been severely impacted by demand for natural gas. ReBlend is looking for ways to connect local textile companies to opportunities in the new circular economy.
Anita quotes three principles she considers important in the shift to a circular economy. First is to focus on where you can have an impact. In Anita’s case, textiles are a big part of her life and identity, but the textile industry does enormous damage. Making an impact here will help solve a big problem. Second is to welcome new perspectives, new ideas, and new routines. And third, in order to build new systems, she thinks we need to connect them to existing systems and form a bridge with existing value chains.
The next section saw 2021 crQlr Award winners pitch their projects. The three winners who joined us today are leading circular projects in Thailand, Taiwan and the UK.
Green Road is a volunteer group in Thailand that collects donations of plastic waste and produces upcycled materials such as paving blocks, desks and benches. These products are then donated to schools, temples, parks, and public spaces with the goal of improving people’s quality of life through an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
We use 300 million tons of plastic bags every year. These contribute to polluting the oceans or they end up in landfills or incinerated, polluting the soil and air. However, if we can reuse the plastic waste as asphalt paving material, we can create eco-friendly roads. It is eco-friendly and can solve a variety of problems. That is the upcycling we are proposing.
REnato lab is an organization that upcycles e-waste. REnato lab has been working with collectors, recyclers, designers and manufacturers to turn waste printed circuit boards (WPCBs) into artificial stones since 2014.
We live surrounded by numerous digital devices, yet 85.92 percent of PC substrates are not recycled. REstone, an engineered stone made from printed circuit boards, helps to establish a virtuous cycle that conserves natural resources by promoting the use of recycled materials. The recently developed REstone 3.0 has a higher carbon reduction than conventional products and is also used in construction.
Outdoor clothing is a must for nature lovers, but the waterproof breathable textiles (WBTs) used in these products are mostly composite materials that cannot be recycled. They also contain chemicals such as PFCs and PTFE membranes, which are a disaster for the environment. AMPHITEX is a 100% recyclable, PFC and PTFE free, sustainable material that can replace traditional WBTs. The product was developed for the EU market, where PFC regulations are being introduced, and is already being supplied to sportswear and outdoor clothing manufacturers.
Ironically, outdoor clothing, which protects us from rain, snow and wind, and helps us feel closer to nature, is made of materials that are very unfriendly to nature. They are not made to be recycled, so when they become unwanted they are either incinerated or buried in landfills. The coatings used in outdoor clothing, such as PFC and PTFE, become toxic when incinerated. AMPHITEX is a material designed to overcome these disadvantages of outdoor clothing.
The feedback and crosstalk session lasted for an hour and involved a lively exchange of ideas among the judges and winners. The entire event is now available on YouTube, including introductions to the speakers and their projects. Below are some of the highlights:
Ana: This was all very inspiring. What I found particularly impressive was that each project was not just a recycling solution, but had an educational aspect to it. The REstone project was very interesting, but what recycling process are you using?
Wang: Well, first of all, we collaborate with a recycling company in northern Taiwan to disassemble the PC boards. We use a shredder machine to grind them into powder. Then we use magnets to separate them into iron and copper, and finally we take out the fiberglass and mold it into plastic boards.
Ana: When you pitch your idea, I think it’s good to tell the story of the process as well. Your theme of plastic waste is a very political issue, so if you incorporate a narrative based on that, your project will gain more social traction. As I mentioned in my earlier keynote, each material has its own story and brings out emotions in people.
Anita: I believe that the economic perspective is dominant in the decision making of a company or an organization. I’m interested to know if the winners did a business case which considers the ecological cost and the monetary value, as well as the social benefit?
Jun: The average price in GBP of a textile with the performance required for outdoor clothing is between 8 and 20 pounds per square meter. We can manufacture AMPHITEX for about 5 pounds and sell it for about 10 pounds.
We also have numbers on the carbon footprint of PTFE. The total annual global production of PTFE is 480,000 tons. Of that amount, 48,000 tons are used in textiles. This has a carbon footprint of 0.46 metric tons CO2eq per year, or 0.038 percent of the total carbon footprint of all textiles. We believe that we can gain deeper insights if we hire a third party to measure the impact of our products.
As for the social impact, textiles containing WBTs and PFCs emit toxic gases when they are incinerated, and these gases often affect developing countries rather than developed ones. The social benefits to developing countries from the removal of these gases would be significant.
Anita: Thank you, and Dr. Pow, what do you think?
Dr. Pow: I think there are direct and indirect benefits. The direct benefit to us is zero. However, the indirect benefit of reusing plastic is very large.
What are the strongest influences pushing the spread of circular materials? And what are the barriers that prevent them from becoming popular?
Ana: Taking Latin America as an example, I think the strongest influence, both in terms of diffusion and barriers, is society itself. Right now, there is a movement of people who are changing the way they consume. At the same time, governments do not have any policies to support companies that develop recyclable materials. Recycling is more expensive than buying new, so social influence is needed.
Dr. Pow: In Thailand, the circular economy model is not yet widespread, so people are not fully aware of it.
Jun: In the UK, there is a really strong push for sustainable innovation. We are in the sportswear business, but there are many similar companies in different fields. As a result, big players such as large corporations are also very interested in circular solutions. It’s good to be part of this movement and be surrounded by like-minded people in the UK and EU.
Anita: I agree with what Jun is saying. In the Netherlands, I think the pandemic is pushing the circular movement. People have realized that so many things are not being made here, or even in Europe, but are coming from Asia. The pandemic has given us a new focus on more regional processing and production, the importance of having materials stay in loops here rather than being shipped to Asia for processing. The change has been very interesting.
Wang: Taiwanese companies are required by government policy to use a certain percentage of recyclable materials. But at the same time, the price of recyclable materials is higher than that of virgin materials and it’s hard to get the quantity we need. That’s why circular materials are still not as popular as they could be.
How has nature-centred design influenced your work in circular materials?
Jun: Well, before I started my company, I was a researcher studying materials at a university in Japan. In particular, I had a strong interest in biomaterial innovation. The knowledge and experience I gained at that time led to the development of AMPHITEX. When you look at living things, they are much better at circulating materials than we are, so nature is a source of inspiration.
Ana: That’s interesting. I think all circular materials are inspired by nature in some way. I use a lot of things from nature as materials, for example mushrooms. What I find is that materials in nature are like structures that are all connected and play a specific role.
Dr. Pow: For an engineer, the easiest way to create a road is to cut down trees. At Green Road, we think of ways to create roads that avoid trees. I think that’s what it means to live in harmony with nature.
What are your next goals or benchmarks in your current projects?
Jun: We’re currently exploring different recycling methods at AMPHITEX. We’re trying to do both mechanical recycling and chemical recycling, while also trying to increase the scale of recycling.
Dr. Pow: With Green Road, we’re promoting the reuse of plastics both in Thailand and globally, and preventing waste.
Wang: We’re finding ways to use all kinds of waste and create benefits through their reuse. REstone is just one of our projects. We would like to create new products with different kinds of materials and reduce the waste of resources.
The Kyoto session ended with comments by Kelsie Stewart, Chief Community Officer at FabCafe, co-organizers of the crQlr Summit.
Kelsie: Thank you very much for a very fruitful discussion. One point that stuck out from Dr. Pow was this idea of giving value back to plastic. I think this is something that can be shared among all of your projects: how to give value back to something that might be considered waste. When plastic was first invented, it was a revolutionary material. People at that time probably never imagined that plastic was going to become so valueless in future.
At the same time, Green Road is a beautiful project in schools, temples and other public spaces that gives plastic a kind of social value that people back then could not have imagined would be possible. That leaves me with a beautiful sense of hope.
Whenever we talk about issues related to climate change or the circular economy, it’s easy
to get distracted by crazy numbers telling us the world is ending, ice caps are melting, and biodiversity is decreasing. But today I was left with a sense of hope that the work you’re doing, the vision you have, and the collaborators you’re bringing in will help you reach your goals. On that note, I’d like to thank everyone again.
Watch the entire session hosted by FabCafe Kyoto, including presentations, feedback and discussion:
crQlr is a global consortium that supports the practitioners and future creators of a new society based on a circular economy. To enquire about our awards or to request support for your own circular project, get in touch with us here.
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