This past fall, Dell sponsored the Circular Economy People’s Choice Award – a showcase for entrepreneurial companies finding innovative solutions to advancing the circular economy. While the award itself will be given out during the World Economic Forum, the people have spoken and our winner was announced January 4. Congratulations to Bioelektra Group and our runner-up, Black Bear.
Bioelektra’s RotoSTERIL technology is the kind of approach that will keep the wheels of the circular economy rolling. They start with the idea that everything has value and “waste” is a resource, not a problem. In theory, this sounds great. Whether you’re an individual consumer or a giant corporation, you probably are trying to recycle more and reduce your waste.
But it can be hard. I am a realist, I get it. Every week or so I have to ask myself: can I recycle this milk carton? (the answer in Austin, TX: no) Mis-sorting leads to contamination. Contamination increases costs (either to separate out at the waste processing facility or in having to dispose of the recyclables because they cannot be salvaged). Increased costs mean those resources do not get bought or used. That’s a broken system.
And that’s where the genius of Bioelektra’s solution comes in. They make it simple. Just throw it all in one bin.
I can do that.
The process is actually quite genius: everything comes to a facility where it gets shredded, steamed and treated in a way that completely breaks down all the organics first. This gets rid of the microorganisms (and odors), making it sterile. They then sift out this organic biomass, leaving the metals, plastics and glass. Using optical sorters, they can then further isolate specific types of plastics. When it’s all said and done, 96 percent of the materials get recycled and only 4 percent wind up being sent to landfills.
Bioelektra’s RotoSTERIL helps recyclers recover more materials – and more value – with less hassle.
While their solution requires sorting out electronics (please don’t be a digital hoarder – see where you can recycle your computer), hazardous waste and a few other items, it is very simple and offers a game-changing opportunity for the circular economy.
But doesn’t that sound like plain old recycling? One of the challenges that has plagued the take-back industries is that the cost of collecting, sorting and processing materials often outstrips the value they can get for the materials. So yes – this is very much like other recycling options, but Bioelektra is using technology to drive efficiencies that will yield the financial benefits that have eluded others in the past. That’s the “economy” part of the circular economy. It has to deliver financial value as well as environmental benefits.
Runner-up: Black Bear
Black Bear is also tackling an abundant waste-related problem with an innovative solution. They are able to extract high-quality carbon black (used in tires and rubber as a filler and as pigment in coatings, plastics and inks) from used tires instead of traditional sources like crude oil and tar.
Estimates suggest up to 1 billion tires are discarded every year. Black Bear’s circular solution not only repurposes these waste tires, but it also means we use less oil and create fewer emissions. Dell is investigating a similar technology that would take the particulate emissions from diesel generators and use it for ink and toner.
And Dell is involved because…?
If you’re wondering at this point why we sponsored the People’s Choice category this year for The Circulars, there are three main reasons.
The circular economy is coming. The changing demographics and resource constraints are going to drive this shift. We are currently using 1.6 planets’ worth of resources every year, and it is getting harder to reach many of the non-renewable resources like oil and ores. Meanwhile, we will add 3 billion people to the ranks of the middle class by 2030, many of whom will want to pick up the same consumption habits that have driven us to this point. If we’re going to meet that level of demand, we have to make some changes.
It is already working for us. At Dell, we have long used recycled-content plastics as part of our products and we have recently begun working on closed-loop and circular solutions. For example, we take some of the plastics recovered through our consumer recycling efforts, process them and use them (as part of a mix) for making new parts. To date, we’ve made more than 7.5 million pounds of parts this way, accounting for tens of millions of products across 48 different product lines. These solutions come with a smaller environmental footprint and lower cost than other materials.
Technology will drive value in the circular economy. While the basic changes in materials management will form the backbone of the circular economy, there are great opportunities to use technology to create value – we are already seeing this. Virtualization and cloud services create value without creating more “stuff.” The Internet of Things is helping all of us better measure and manage our environments, which helps us save resources. And the analytic power of Big Data is uncovering hidden efficiencies and system-level insights that create the kind of change we need.
You can read about all the finalists for The Circulars here.