The Circular Economy Goes Digital


The "circular economy" doesn't just mean recycling. It aims to fundamentally reduce the amount of waste we produce and potentially create a zero-waste society. With the ever increasing digitisation of our daily lives, we now have more opportunities than ever to keep waste levels low.

Autor*in Gast , 08.03.17

According to experts at the technology consultancy Accenture, digital technologies are true accelerators for the circular economy. In their study (pdf), Accenture confirms that digital disruptions are currently shaking up many previously stable industries and opening up new, profitable growth opportunities. Accenture recognises digital solutions as the drivers capable of making new business models mainstream and strengthening the circular economy.

Startups play a key role in this respect, as many young founders have an increased awareness of the topic of the circular economy: they have discovered the potential of the circular economy and are working on smart solutions and apps that simplify its implementation – and to some extent their new business models are even establishling a circular economy trend.

Curbing Food Waste With Your Smartphone

Christoph Müller-Dechent, the founder of FoodLoop, has resolved to reduce daily food waste in supermarkets. Every day, each supermarket branch throws away at least two shopping carts full of still edible groceries. That’s why his startup, founded in 2014, has developed an app that offers products at reduced prices shortly before their expiration dates and helps users find those products easily. To make this work, FoodLoop links the supermarkets’ merchandise management systems together with a tool for consumers.

Though the idea may seem simple, the impact is huge. It’s not just that less food ends up in the trash. The production, logistics, and storage of goods in the food industry are also wasteful; anything that lands in the bin, not on the plate,  is also a waste of land use, water, energy, and labour. The international jury of the Green Alley Award was so impressed by Müller-Dechent’s business idea, it named him winner of the European circular economy startup competition in 2014.

Another food saving initiative, the Finnish startup ResQ Club has developed an app that gives users the opportunity to purchase leftover food from nearby restaurants. By its own account, the company has saved more than 65,000 kilograms of food since 2016. And the recent merger of ResQ Club and Mealsaver – which was until recently pursuing a similar business concept in Germany – shows that the idea has been successful and has international appeal.

Less Waste in the Construction Industry Thanks to Online Platform

The basic principle underlying ResQ Club, FoodLoop can be effectively transferred to other economic sectors – the construction industry, for example, responsible for the vast majority of waste in this part of the world. More than 52 per cent of waste in Germany is generated by construction and demolition. Since 2015, leftover building materials have been digitally bought and sold on the online sales platform restado, headquartered in Stuttgart.

You can find anything here – from windows, bricks, and concrete to wood tiles and insulation materials. Up until now, orders made by mistake and leftover supplies from large orders made only in order to meet minimum purchase quantities, have too often ended up in the trash. Now with restado, even small amounts can be offered online, helping avoid tons of environmentally harmful waste.

What About Worn-Out Digital Devices?

Digitisation and the circular economy interlock perfectly at many points. But the moment we stop reading print newspapers and opt instead for digital versions on our phones or tablets is the moment we generate not paper waste, but electronic waste instead. That’s why we also need circular solutions for the devices we use – ones that begin well before the actual recycling.

One approach is circular design where the design of the product enables the simple dismantling of its components, allowing for improved recycling. It is equally important, however, to dispose of old devices properly so that valuable raw materials can be recycled, and dangerous substances kept from endangering people and the environment. The residual waste disposal is simply not suited for this; unfortunately, e-waste still ends up there far too often.

But the founders of binee say there’s no reason waste disposal can’t also be fun. The Leipzig-based startup is improving the way electrical and electronic waste is collected by way of a smart trash can equipped with a camera system. The latter reads the label of the product thrown into the bin, then playfully informs the consumer via app about the disposal process of the old device. The consumer is also rewarded with incentives.

© binee

Good Ideas Need Support

Startups like binee, restado, and FoodLoop are all enabling the circular economy to be put into practice. But these founders alone cannot precipitate the kind of social change that will transform our previously linear economic system into a truly circular economy, thereby making it more sustainable. Policy makers must create the right framework conditions, while big business and consumers need to follow suit. 

All these startups have been finalists or winners of the Green Alley Award in recent years, a European startup competition for promoting innovative ideas in the circular economy. Since 2014, the award has been granted annually by an international jury of circular economy experts and startups. The call for this year’s Green Alley Award has already been tendered – for a few more days only. Digital pioneers from all over Europe are invited to apply!

About the Green Alley Award: 

Green Alley supports young founders and startups contributing to the circular economy with their ideas. Applications for the Green Alley Award are due by 25 July, 2017. More information can be found at:

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