Let us imagine a world where all kinds of resources can be recycled forever without producing any waste. The products around you can be reprocessed after they are discarded, becoming the resources that other industries might need. Coffee grounds from your morning cup can be turned into shampoo. Plastic bottles can be used to make fabrics after being recycled. This model of enabling resources to be limitlessly recycled and reused is called the circular economy.
In fact, such a world is achievable. Here in Taiwan, there are already many enterprises committing themselves to building a circular economy.
On the 6th of July, Social Enterprise Insights held a series of lectures named “The Circular Economy and Social Design”, in which Wang-Ping Ge, Chairman of the Board of O’right, and Po-Hsiung Huang, Director of the Department of Products at the Taiwan Textile Research Institute, were invited to share their views on the circular economy and their experiences with related experimentation.
O’right: putting the idea of cradle to cradle into practice by reutilising coffee grounds
A morning coffee is daily fuel for many office workers. According to statistics from the Ministry of Finance, Taiwanese people consume about 210 million cups of coffee each year, and most coffee grounds are directly discarded or used in homes as odour neutralisers.
What other people might regard as waste is a potential resource that can be reutilised in the eyes of Wang-Ping Ge, the Chairman of the Board of O’right. After he bought a large quantity of coffee grounds from Gukeng coffee farmers, he turned them into a series of haircare products by applying the processes of dehydration, sterilisation and oil extraction.
The residuals left after the coffee grounds had been processed were not discarded at all. Instead, he mixed the coffee ground residuals with starch and made them into bottles, at the bottom of which he planted two coffee beans. After being used by customers, these bottles can be directly sown in the soil rather than thrown in the bin. When the bottles naturally decompose, coffee trees will grow from them.
“Coffee trees give you coffee beans. Coffee beans give you coffee. If you give me coffee grounds, I can make shampoo for you. You can then plant more coffee trees with the shampoo bottles. This is putting ‘cradle to cradle’ into practice,” said Wang-Ping Ge.
In addition to reutilising coffee grounds, O’right recently started collaborating with DaFon Environmental Technology in producing shampoo bottles 100% made from recycled plastic. After procedures like categorising, packaging, comminution, categorising by weight, mixing and pelletising are complete, the recycled plastic is mixed with new plastic before a plastic bottle is made. This manufacturing process only emits a quarter of the carbon dioxide needed to produce an ordinary plastic bottle of the same volume.
At the moment, there are 7000 beauty salons using O’right products in Taiwan. Hair designers who work in these beauty salons have become green ambassadors introducing the ideas of environmental protection and sustainability to their customers.
In Taiwan, the mechanisms by which plastic bottles are recycled are already very mature. While most waste plastic bottles are made into plastic products or clothing, “Fabric Garden” uses the advantages of plastic bottles, like lightness and durability, in developing them into exterior cladding for large buildings.
Po-Hsiung Huang, who works as Director of the Department of Products at the Taiwan Textile Research Institute, said that his idea came when helping his children with a science assignment. He realised that fabric could also be used as a base for growing plants and proceeded with experimentation. In one experiment, he tested the durability of fabric made from waste plastic bottles by putting it under a metal shelf unit and car. Four years and eight months later, as soon as he found the fabric to still be as intact as it had always been, he realised that “plastic bottles would not rot or stink, so should be used in the right places”.
The fabric used in “Fabric Garden” comes from waste plastic bottles. A 3D weaving technique is applied to create a multiple pocket structure. Each pocket is filled with some soil and cotton-like polyester fibres, in which seeds are planted. The plants that grow out of the pockets are full of vitality. The fabric is soft but tough, lightweight but not easily damaged. At the moment, such fabric is already being used as exterior cladding for large buildings as a result of cooperation with construction companies.
In summer, these giant green walls provide shade and protect buildings from the sun, thereby reducing the indoor temperature. When it rains heavily, the fabric absorbs excess water and reduces the risk of flooding. Because they do not contain much soil, these fabric pouches are far lighter than conventional growing pots, and because no excess water is left to sit in the pockets, the fabric does not breed mosquitos. In addition, this product is both convenient and water-saving, as you only need to pour water on the top for it to follow the fibres and direction of gravity down, eventually permeating the entire fabric structure.
Po-Hsiung Huang has said that general construction probably requires 200kg of conventional cladding materials per unit area on average, “whereas just 50kg of Fabric Garden cladding per unit area is enough”. This design won Huang an iF Product Design Golden Award in 2011.
Enterprises take the lead in influencing consumers and promoting the value of the circular economy
To achieve a world where resources are continuously recycled, corporations that are stubborn in protecting the environment are much needed. Wang-Ping Ge shared his reflection: “we may know exactly what kind of shampoo our customers need, but do we know what kind of shampoo our rivers would expect us to use?” He believes that if corporations can value the environment, it certainly will influence consumers and even the whole of society.
“Changing consumption habits will significantly reduce the burden that our consumption has put on our planet,” said Po-Hsiung Hunag. By building the values of the circular economy, both corporations and consumers will learn how to cherish resources and work together to create environmentally-friendly business models.