Going Circular with Plastics: Startup ByFusion Spinning Into Production

One of the great ironies of our time is the fact that one of the few permanent materials on the planet makes up the majority of our single-use, "disposable" packaging.  Indeed, a volume of plastic equivalent to the Empire State Building flows into our global oceans weekly, with an estimated 8 million tons of plastic flooding waters annually.  While some private sector innovators, as well as countries, states, and municipalities are working very hard to both avoid and stem this flow (e.g. San Francisco currently diverts ~80% of waste from the landfill; plastic bag bans have been implemented in regions across the globe, innovative packaging such as the edible 6-pack rings from Saltwater Brewery are emerging, and numerous other examples are promising,) less than 8% of the 300M tons of plastic produced each year is recycled.   I've spent the better part of the past year studying this problem, both first hand in Latin America and with experts at UNEP and other leading institutions.

Top of the funnel, "closed loop" circular business models and solutions are essential; we must work to slow, minimize and stop the flow of plastic waste into oceans, landfills and incinerators.  Manufacturers must increasingly design products for disassembly, repair, remanufacture, and return plastics to the supply chain.  Packaging strategies must evolve to minimize plastic waste and drive consumer behavior change.

Until then, enter ByFusion.

ByFusion has created a process and machine for capturing plastic waste and turning it into a construction asset, a material called RePlast, which is effectively blocks that can replace traditional concrete or other materials in numerous development applications.  This is not the first time innovators have thought to use plastic waste in construction - there are small scale efforts in the developing world such as the one led by my friend, Andreas Froese, and also awe-inspiring, high end design proofs as seen in the EcoARK created by the team at MiniWiz in Taiwan. But this one is different, going beyond the reuse of bottles alone, and expanding the potential impact and applicability across numerous infrastructure use cases.  While early, this innovation has the potential to solve many of the specific challenges we face in plastics recycling, (beyond the obvious sheer scale of the problem):

  • current processes require separation of the 7 types of plastics, only 3 of which are broadly recyclable - this is costly and inefficient
  • the significant majority of plastic currently recycled globally gets transported to China for processing into down-cycled materials and then subsequent return to local areas in the form of products, incurring significant cost and negative externalities associated with transportation and processing
  • current collection of plastic waste from beaches and oceans is gated by the presence of waste pickers, beach cleanup crews, and skilled marine teams and equipment

The ByFusion process is portable, enabling local collection and processing.  It is green, operating in a carbon neutral model and free of toxins and adhesives.  It eliminates the need for sorting and pre-washing and accepts and uses all type of plastic waste.  Key questions on my mind include how the actual collection process works and any related environmental impact, as well as the intended business model - how the economics will flow and whether this also represents opportunity for local job creation and economic development in region.  The company is early and has all the typical, early-stage execution challenges ahead of it, but this is one worth applauding and supporting - you can do so directly via their IndieGogo campaign.   

 

Defining [a More Human] "Circular Economy"

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the leading think tank on the topic, "A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. The concept distinguishes between technical and biological cycles.... [and it] is a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimises resource yields, and minimises system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows. It works effectively at every scale."  This is - clearly - distinct from our global, overwhelmingly linear model of take/ make/ waste, designed intentionally following WW2 to foster consumption and the 'disposable economy' and drive industrial productivity.

No question, Ellen MacArthur is the bomb, arguably the most influential team working to drive transformation across sectors and the globe, delivering ground breaking research with partners like the World Economic Forum, McKinsey, and others, and influencing both public policy and private sector action.  But I contend that this definition omits one key element of a truly circular economy, in which 'resources' must also include human resources.  Analogously, B-Corps seek to move from a model of prioritization of shareholder value to one in which the return to all stakeholders - people, planet, profit - is demanded.  A circular economy should also advocate an inclusive model which aims to keeps people, along with 'products, components and materials at their optimal level of utility and value at all times,' assuming of course that human utility and value is also correlated with individual prosperity (think: wage share, among other critical components).  

Fortunately, it turns out that while manufacturing from raw materials (dominant in a linear economy) is characterized by ~75% materials cost, with only ~25% labor cost, in at least several of the loops of circular economy, this ratio can be inverted.*  Indeed transformation to more circular models has the potential to create jobs, while expanding profitability and preserving our planet.

More to come on job creation and the roles of technology and human capital in circular economies...

*Data cited by Hunter Lovins, a lifetime scholar, influencer, thought leader, and author in her presentation during the Disruption Innovation Festival 2015.