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What does material innovation look like in a circular economy?

Impressive technological and innovative individual business solutions have been developed throughout the industrial revolution, and more recently, many of those are taking advantage of the additional value propositions created by the circular economy model. New design and business propositions are often actively enabled by technological advancements, especially those associated with the impending digital revolution, but this perhaps leads to an over-emphasis on the development of these technical solutions. Arguably the bigger challenge in transitioning to a more regenerative and restorative model is how the economy can be steered in a way that produces better outcomes by intention.

Take the example of the textiles and apparel sector. It was recently been announced that Jimtex Yarns, a division of the Martex Fiber Southern Corporation has released a new collection of jeans called R3 Denim™ in collaboration with Denim North America. All of the products in the collection will be created using ECO2cotton®, which is made by taking pre-consumer cut cotton knit waste and “re-fiberising” and spinning it into a new yarn without using any chemicals or additives to alter the material structure. It’s a virtually unique process, which creates a material that is at least competitive at a local scale.

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The ingenuity demonstrated by collaborations like the one between Martex Fiber and Denim North America suggest that most, if not all, technical challenges are overcomable, even when it comes to something as complex as “re-fiberisation”. In the textiles space alone, there are a cluster of impressive innovators, including Evrnu who recycle cotton to create new renewables fibres, and Spiber, who are growing a material based on spider silk in a laboratory. As innovations like these continue to gain traction, it is almost inconceivable to think anything other than that at some point reused and recycled fibres in large quantities will be technically feasible for the apparel sector. Less certain is whether the conditions of the economic system will enable the economic viability of those processes.

Can an economy that does a better job of enabling positive innovations to reach scale over the long-term and accounts for impacts in such a way that favours renewable resources over non-renewables be orchestrated? While there are various education and business structures that aim to foster effective innovation and new technologies, there are fewer and less well understood mechanisms for system-level change.

This doesn’t diminish the importance or value of entrepreneurs, small businesses, designers and other innovators in creating individual technical solutions to challenges, but it does raise other significant questions and it suggests that innovation needs to be lodged in a context where key bigger picture principles are in place. How does change happen on a different scale?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation led New Plastics Economy initiative is an ambitious three-year initiative that aims to tackle exactly that challenge, aiming to build momentum behind a re-think of all plastic packaging and how it flows through the broader economy, looking for the key inflection points to shift what is, if judged by volume of material, an enormous system.

95% of the raw material value of plastics is lost after just one use, only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling, despite 40 years of effort, and one third leaks into the oceans, according to the initial New Plastics Economy report published in 2016. The follow up report, published earlier this month, identified three strategies to create a more effective system for different kinds of packaging.

Crucially, the programme brings together business and policy stakeholders across the value chain to work on the execution of these strategies. It is too early to judge the success of the initiative, however there is something intuitively compelling about the approach and the value in taking a step back from attempting to resolve the issues associated with individual silos.

Find out more: New Plastics Economy initiative

Have you read our latest feature? Applying the circular economy lens to water

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The Author

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website's topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]circulatenews.org

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