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Circular Start-Ups: The Route to a Low-Carbon Economy

Tue, 29 July 2014

Contributed by Arthur Kay, Shell LiveWIRE Innovation Award winner and co-founder of bio-bean
'In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity' (Albert Einstein), and, if that is the case, we face no bigger opportunity than our transition to a low-carbon economy. We turn to corporations, governments, charities and NGOs to drive this evolution. However, it is critical that start-ups play their part as well. Human progress has been driven by the meeting of different ideas to make new ones, and start-ups can provide a deeper understanding of how to translate these ideas and accelerate and scale these trends. 
In less than a century, a linear economy has created unprecedented economic growth and material prosperity. A model of production and consumption, in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used, and then discarded as waste, has dominated our industrial evolution. This linear system has provided prosperity to billions, through relying on batch production, planned obsolescence, economies of scale, and complex supply chains. It is both resource and energy intensive with over 80% of materials ending up in landfills or incinerators, and, as the global middle class expands to five billion by 2030, we have begun to understand that this is no longer sustainable. So what is the alternative? 
Circular Start-Ups The Route to a Low-Carbon Economy
We need to replace the linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model, with a restorative circular one, in which material flows are designed to re-enter the biosphere safely or to be recycled and reused. This would enable us to provide sustainable economic and environmental growth rather than relying on large quantities of cheap easily accessible resources and energy. Our economy, cities, buildings and products must be viewed as part of an ecological system, which in turn should inform our approach to building companies. This opportunity can only be achieved if it evolves from the drawing board – it needs to be driven by start-ups. 
In the UK over 500,000 companies ‘started-up’ last year. Several of these will go on to become the Pret A Manger or the Topshop of 2024. Imagine the alternative future of our planet if each of these organisations, regardless of sector, had circularity encoded into their business’s DNA. Energy, transport and technology companies alone will not deliver our transition to a low-carbon economy. This is an opportunity that needs to be addressed from all angles and applied uniformly. Some of the most inspiring stories surrounding circular businesses come from unexpected sectors; from washing machine manufacturers to carpet retailers, from DIY shops to data centres, and from electronics companies to coffee shops. 
Regardless of their area of expertise, start-ups have an important role to play in a low-carbon economy. Pioneering larger corporations, governments and NGOs will be critical in scaling and implementing these models. However, whilst established organisations are very competent operationally, they can struggle to generate exciting, innovative ideas. Start-ups have the ability to pivot their businesses and think laterally, exploring a plethora of ideas from a range of perspectives, skill-sets which complement those of larger organisations and which will become increasingly important as we make this shift. 
Our transition to a low-carbon economy can be delivered by making our linear economic model circular. This is not an opportunity set aside for green entrepreneurs or corporate behemoths, governments or even one for the eco-warriors. It is a chance for all of us to build circularity into every aspect of our lives and organisations, and start-ups need to play their part.

About Arthur Kay (Co-founder and CEO of bio-bean)

Arthur Kay is an award-winning designer and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and CEO of bio-bean Limited, a green energy company that recycles waste coffee grounds into Advanced Biofuels. Arthur sits on a number of boards associated with creative enterprise and green entrepreneurship and is a Fellow of the RSA. In 2013 he won Shell LiveWIRE’s ‘Innovation Award’ and in 2014 was a finalist for the Shell Springboard Awards for the UK’s most promising low-carbon SMEs. He has been appointed as a 'London Leader' by Mayor Boris Johnson, as an 'Emerging Innovator' by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
You can follow him @bio_bean_uk.

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