Using waste as a resource, rather than disposing of it as waste, is what makes a circular economy circular. It takes the two ends of a linear product lifecycle – namely resource sourcing at the start and product disposal at the end – and links them together into a closed loop, where the materials contained in end-of-life products are extracted and used as resource inputs to make new products.
Waste-as-a-resource changes our outlook on waste. Instead of seeing it as valueless rubbish that we must get rid of, the concept encourages us to treat waste as a valuable resource that has the potential to generate economic gain when used to create new products.
In a time when natural resources are steadily declining and waste streams are rapidly growing, it is incredibly important for us to close the loop between waste and resource. Not only for the sake of the planet, but also for the sake of retaining economic value and making sure that we have enough resources to continue sustaining ourselves as a society.
Numerous entrepreneurs around the world have recognized a waste problem that was yet to be solved, many of whom also noticed a gap in the market for this waste to be processed and sold as a resource. Here are three examples of these waste problems that were transformed into resource solutions.
1 – Mining waste into building material
A new building material, SolidRock, has been engineered out of the leftover rubble of the mining industry. This geopolymer material is a more sustainable alternative to cement-based concrete, with the capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cement production up to 90%.
Cement production accounts for as much as 8% of annual global CO2 emissions, which will only continue to rise as the demand for concrete grows by 7% each year. Meanwhile, the mining industry also generates vast deposits of waste material that are potentially harmful for the environment.
Rather than letting these mining byproducts go to waste and contaminate the environment, the company behind SolidRock engineered a way to turn it into a low-carbon alternative to cement. By using SolidRock in place of cement to produce concrete, the growing demand for concrete can be matched in a way that reduces – rather than increases – the greenhouse gasses emitted during its production.
2 – Old fishing nets into high-end nylon products
Nofir collects discarded fishing equipment from fisheries and aquaculture sites to recycle them into high-end ECONYL® nylon yarn. This yarn is then used to produce carpets, industrial textiles, clothing, and more.
Ghost nets, which are the nets and ropes that fish farmers have discarded into the water, continue to float around in marine ecosystems where they trap and kill numerous fish, turtles, and other sea life. As they start to decompose, they leech microplastics into the ocean that the fish consume, ultimately finding their way into humans’ digestive systems.
Ghost fishing equipment is reported to be the most harmful form of marine litter, and between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tons of it is left in our oceans each year.
But as harmful as it to leave it in the environment, disposing of fishing gear properly is no easy task. The fishermen must transport nets weighing up to 50 metric tons to the nearest recycling facility, all the way from the extremely rural areas in which they live. Most lack the time, equipment, and expertise to do so.
Nofir established an international network spanning 5 countries to make the collection, transportation, and recycling of waste fishing equipment possible and effective. As much of the nets and ropes as possible are harvested from the aquatic ecosystems, which are then transported to the recycling facilities where the company ensures that every recyclable material is properly handled and processed. Over the past 10 years Nofir has managed to collect 35,000 metric tons of netting, generating 7,000 metric tons of raw material from them per year.
By turning old fishing nets into nylon yarn, Nofir not only removes harmful fishing waste from the environment but also helps to retain the value of retired fishing nets within the economy by transforming them into marketable nylon-based products.
3 – Toxic incinerator fly ash into commercially attractive residue
There is now a way to convert fly ash, the toxic byproduct of waste-to-energy incinerators, into non-toxic, commercially attractive residue which can be used to produce a wide range of products. The innovative process developed by NORSEP can be implemented at waste-to-energy plants as a way to combat the fly ash problem directly at the source.
Waste-to-energy incinerators have been implemented in multiple countries to handle the growing amounts of waste generated on a regular basis. The benefit these incinerators bring is two-fold: they have the capacity to reduce waste volume by 90%, and the heat generated during the burning of the waste is used to produce energy. However, fly ash is also generated as a byproduct during the burning of waste, which contains high concentrations of toxic heavy metals.
NORSEP converts this hazardous fly ash into valuable non-toxic residues for use in the production of various products. Their process uses hydrochloric acid to dissolve the fly ash, then filters out the undissolved fly ash and eliminates the toxins using heat. The resulting residues can be used as material inputs in a range of industries, such as for the production of concrete or zinc.
NORSEP’s innovative process not only provides an answer to the question of how to deal with hazardous by-products of waste-to-energy incinerators, but also is a prime example of enabling the use of one industry’s waste as another industry’s resource.