Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

From e-chargers inside phone booths, recycling chatbots to refurbished stadium seats from Atlético Madrid, the offbeat magic of the circular economy is fast becoming a lucrative business in Spain

Serial-entrepreneur Andrés Martínez of iUrban nearly missed a job interview when his phone battery started to run out while he was following directions to the office location. It was the eureka moment when he saw the incredible business potential of installing mobile charging stations inside redundant phone booths scattered across the city.

Today, iUrban e-charging stations can be found in phone booths, lamp posts, metros, and other public facilities. Backed by the City Council of Málaga and the Andalusian board of commerce, the company has expanded outside the national borders into neighboring Andorra, Romania and even across the ocean into Mexico.

Many eco-friendly startups like iUrban have been launched in Spain, with founders taking advantage of national incentives that encourage the creation of innovative recycling models, as part of the pan-European drive to support the circular economy. A circular economy is "an economy that reuses and recycles resources to keep them in play for as long as possible", according to the MacMillan dictionary. Circular economy initiatives have the potential to grow exponentially across diverse industries. In 2015, the EU launched the Horizon 2020 program which backs startups with the necessary funding and government support to implement innovative and more sustainable models. The Spanish ecosystem is expected to generate approximately 52,000 jobs through such initiatives, according to Eurobarometer.

Spain's hothouse for circular economies

The Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Environment has recently launched the ISSOP seal in Spain to identify companies that have adopted, or are implementing, sustainable and circular models in their businesses. Various Spanish regions have also started their own action plans. Madrid has created Madrid7R Circular Economy to promote the “7Rs Strategy”: redesign, reduce, reutilize, recycle, repair, renew and retrieve products and materials within our ecosystems.

The Waste Agency of Catalonia has started to subsidize businesses that embrace a circular model and eco-friendly materials. Approximately 217 technology centers are now conducting research and offering innovative environmental solutions to businesses. In 2015, Catalonia's circular economies generated over €4 billion in turnover, or 2% of GDP, by focusing mainly on the recovery and reuse of waste, manufacturing of secondary raw materials, renewable energies and the rationalization of water consumption.

Ecoembes, a not-for-profit organization promoting recycling and eco-design packaging in Spain, has created an innovation and research and development center TheCircularLab in the northern region of Rioja. The center has also created a startup accelerator to support projects that investigate and develop advances in eco-innovation and recycling tech. An interesting project is A.I.R-e, the first chatbot created to increase public awareness about recycling. Developed in conjunction with Accenture, the space-age bot is available free on Facebook Messenger, Google Play, Apple Store and Amazon Alexa. Advanced features such as machine learning, voice, text and image recognition are used to provide real-time information on the composition of materials and advice about the correct recycling containers for different types of packaging.

Ecodicta: Fashion 10 years from now

Fashion companies are often major contributors to environmental contamination and water pollution, accounting for 20% of toxins in water and, by 2050, could be responsible for 25% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to eco-fashion startup Ecodicta. This is because consumers, on average, use fashion items only seven times before getting rid of them, the company says. It asserts that using an item 50 times in one year will produce 400 times less CO2 than using an item five times in one month and then discarding it.

Based on these projections, the Madrid-based startup has developed a subscription model that allows users to rent different fashion items every month. Subscription plans cost €100–200 a month. New users have to perform a test that helps to profile their unique personality, style, and sizes. Based on the profile data, Ecodicta sends a new box of clothes to the customer every month. The subscription plan allows the customer to keep and use the items for 30 days, before sending each month's box of items back to Ecodicta.

The fashion rental scheme encourages consumers to optimize the use of resources under the hashtag #visteconconciencia, translated as "dress consciously" - a movement that brings sharing economies into the fashion world to promote more environmentally conscious attitudes in consumerism.

Comcosy: A second life for furniture

Marta and Pilar Sierra are the two sisters behind Comcosy, an e-marketplace that connects craftsmen, manufacturers and consumers. The sisters saw the market potential for a furniture recycling community platform when they tried to sell their own furniture in their rented apartment in London. “You rarely get to sell a used product of good quality for its real value,” they commented.

Hence Comcosy was founded in Madrid to facilitate furniture recycling and to customize reusing solutions based on a customer's taste and requirements. It also creates a platform to help craftsmen and manufacturers to exchange trade information and to acquire second-hand goods for refurbishment. As a result, high-quality furniture and design solutions are offered to consumers who prefer original bespoke art pieces for their homes. The platform currently hosts over 80,000 projects from local craftsmen.

The platform gained recognition in October 2018 when the soccer team Atlético Madrid had to renew its stadium and gave away its seats. Comcosy took the chance to convert each seat into a unique and customized piece of design that was then resold on the platform. The Atlético Madrid project was a huge success and transformed Comcosy into a cool eco-furniture platform. The hype of circular economy and the shift in consumer mentality to favor recycled goods have reaped financial benefits for the startup. "It’s something investors value a lot”, the co-founders added.

ReCircula Solutions: Recycling, gamified

ReCircula Solutions' software collects big data for use in public waste management systems. The Barcelona startup has developed native technology that enables the efficient implementation of the Waste Management 2.0 system to promote the circular economy at the industrial and municipal level.

One of its key technologies optimizes waste collection from street containers. The EG-SAAS hardware can be inserted into any garbage container and permanently connected to the ReCircula cloud platform. Real-time data is sent to the waste management clients to inform them of the latest "filled volume" status of the garbage containers and their geolocations. These updates produce faster response times and optimum waste collection logistics. As a result, municipal and pharmaceutical waste recycling levels have jumped from 30% to 80–95%, garbage separation has doubled and CO2 emissions reduced. Minimal maintenance is needed because the EG-SAAS batteries can last for 10 years. 

ReCircula's technology can also be integrated into smart-city designs to boost urban recycling by 85%. A PAYT (pay-as-you-throw) system can be used to bring gamification into the recycling process to spur public engagement and promote sustainable recycling practices. Still in its pre-seed stage, the company expects to achieve a turnover of €15 million over the next five years. In April 2018, ReCircula was granted funding under the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, part of the European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot program. It will also showcase its solutions to a global audience at the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona in February 2019.

iUrban: Phone booths 2.0

Founded in Malaga by serial-entrepreneur Andrés Martínez, iUrban has taken the initiative to convert obsolete phone booths into e-charging stations for devices. Abandoned phone booths are often seen scattered across many cities because of high costs or a lack of plans for their removal. The reuse of such iconic urban features also fits well into the sustainable and sharing-economy model.

Mobile charging stations, using pre-existing old phone booth power sockets, have incredible revenue-earning potential in the digital era of IoT. The hardware developed by iUrban is compatible with both Apple and Android devices, with built-in information features that help users to get the latest information about local businesses and activities. Besides phone booths, iUrban has also installed its technology in other urban facilities such as lamp posts and in underground train stations or metros. In the digital-age lifestyle, demand for pay-as-you-go mobile charging facilities is expected to grow rapidly.

Fast-growing circular economies

According to the survey by Eurobarometer in 2016, nearly 85% of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Spain have embraced zero-waste production models, thus significantly increasing circular economy initiatives across industry sectors. With more restrictive government regulations in the pipeline, big corporations and SMEs are shifting towards even more sustainable production models to include recycling, biodegradable materials, energy efficiency and the sharing of resources. Several initiatives have been taken to support and regulate the development of circular economies.

The Circular Economy Foundation (FEC) is a private organization that monitors and promotes circular economies in the Iberian region, the Mediterranean Basin and Latin America. The foundation cooperates with the European Parliament, governments, private entities, and industry experts to seek common areas of understanding to lay the groundwork for circular practices.

In Europe, France and the Netherlands are the leaders in the circular economy ecosystem, followed closely by Spain and Poland. Over 50 eco-companies are established every year in France, while the Dutch government has introduced the circular economy initiatives into public policies. Poland is already investing in tech solutions to improve public transport and optimize national energy consumption.

In Asia, China has adopted the principles of the circular economy as part of government policy since 2002. The Chinese government is investing up to CNY 17 trillion (about US$2.5 trillion) in environmental protection from 2016-2020, improving waste treatment systems, saving energy and establishing circular economy practices, as part of the nation's five-yearly economic development plans. Singapore is working on a groundbreaking recycling system for e-waste (electronic waste). In Africa, Kenya and Rwanda have already banned the manufacture and use of plastic bags across the whole retail industry.

A focus on developing new technology, rather than investing in existing ones, will be essential for the future of sustainable businesses. Investments and technological efforts will ultimately be directed towards the research and development of new materials, recycling-tech, 3D printing, modular design tech, bi, processing, and biotech. In addition, companies can improve their brand image to boost fundraising opportunities and reduce wastage costs.

After all, what constitutes as waste for some, can be an essential resource for others.

Edited by Suzanne Soh


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