Three start-up ideas for a circular economy

ReCIRCLE proposes reusable food containers shared by a network of more than 1,800 restaurants across Switzerland. (Credit: Rachel Barbara Häubi)

As the alarm bells of a warming planet continue to go off, companies are emerging all over hoping to come up with the million dollar idea that will revolutionise the economy into a much needed sustainable one. 

This year’s Climate Show edition, held at Geneva’s Palexpo exhibition centre on 20 and 21 April, put the spotlight on eco-innovation to help protect the climate and the environment. One of the conferences featured small start-ups working towards a circular economy, meaning that products and materials are reused, recycled and put back into the economy so that they are kept away from the environment. Here are three of the solutions they propose.

1. Harnessing the power of ants for industrial packaging

Ants are incredibly organised and efficient and that is what Ponera claims it can bring to the shipping industry. Named after the family of small forest-dwelling ants, the Lugano-based start-up has designed modular pallets that can be clipped together to make up different sizes of surface areas.

The most widespread method to transport goods are wooden pallets. However, 40 per cent of those are used only once, of which only 20 per cent is recycled, according to Ponera’s chief executive officer, Matthew Reali. Ponera argues that its pallets make transportation of goods cheaper since they can be reused and have a lifetime of up to 15 years. They can be reassembled to fit into all types of containers, which standard sized pallets cannot. And a little plus for the environment is that no trees get cut down in the process. Ponera has been certified by the Solar Impulse Foundation as one of its 1000 sustainable solutions.

The units are made up of biopolymers that can be recycled up to six times, Reali said. Biopolymers have a similar molecular structure to regular plastics, but they’re made from organic material such as agricultural waste instead of fossil fuels.

While they can biodegrade and return to nature, they still need specific conditions such as very high temperatures to do so or else they can stay in the environment for years. Experts say that as long as there is not a clear waste management stream for bioplastics, it poses some of the same environmental challenges that regular plastic does.

2. Greening IT

Most of us have seen the phrase “save a tree, don’t print” at the bottom of an email and felt like keeping that pdf in our inbox was a real ecological gesture. But digitalising everything also has come at an environmental cost. From emails, to google searches, to social media posts, storing the world’s digital footprint requires enormous amounts of energy, making up four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Resilio, an EPFL spin-off launched in 2020, works with enterprises and institutions to reduce their IT environmental impact. The start-up has worked with the University of Lausanne and the City of Lausanne. It offers courses for employees to raise awareness as well as personalised plans by assessing the company’s IT environmental impact, comparing it to a huge database and then providing guidance on how to reduce it.

As reporting requirements on environmental impact become more stringent, companies increasingly need to assess their emissions sources and shift to sustainable practices. “We want to prepare our clients as the first to be pioneers in the sector and be already there when the regulator comes,” a Resilio representative said.

3. Takeaway for the planet

Single-use packaging plastics is a major source of pollution and is cluttering our lands and oceans. The Swiss company reCIRCLE has designed reusable food containers for food and beverages that customers can take for 10 Swiss franc deposit. They can be reused or returned at any other restaurant partner, where the deposit will be returned.

With a network of around 1,800 restaurants across the country, reCIRCLE’s purple containers have become increasingly popular and are available even in Switzerland’s largest supermarkets such as Migros.

For now reCIRCLE collects all damaged containers and stores them. It is waiting for authorisation to recycle those into new containers. However, recycled plastics can release toxic chemicals which can transfer into food, which is why rigorous tests have to be carried out to make sure that the recycling process is safe.