Maayke-Aimée Damen is Director, Circular Economy, at The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global CEO-led community of over 200 sustainable businesses working collectively to accelerate the system transformations needed for “a net zero, nature positive, and more equitable future.“ Before taking on her current job she founded the Excess Materials Exchange (EME), a marketplace where companies can buy and sell any type of excess material and/or product. The EME works to reduce waste by actively matching supply and demand of materials that would otherwise be considered waste and create continuous material loops. Damen has won various prizes and awards for her work with the EME, including making the MIT Innovator under 35 list and being named an Emerging Innovator by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100 network. Her notable accomplishments include inventing the Resources Passport which works almost like a regular passport: it gives resources an identity and it provides a location where data of a product can be collected through every step of its life cycle. Damen recently spoke to The Innovator about how companies can move towards a circular economy.
Q: What is the financial case for moving to a circular economy?
MAD: Companies throw away end-of-life products because they cannot reuse them again. Think about restaurants and cafeterias that generate large quantities of coffee grounds and orange peels. They can only use these products once. EME, the firm I founded, made successful matches for both types of waste. Citrus oil and limonene can be extracted from the orange peels and the leftovers turned into high quality cattle feed. Cellulose from citrus fruits can be used to create polymers that can be spun into yarn to make clothing. There is a company that uses the coffee grounds to make new products: pigments for the production of ink; cellulose for the production of cups; palmatine acid to make soap; and linoleic acid used in the production of cosmetics. This doesn’t just work for orange peels and coffee, it’s true for most materials. Railway tracks can be repurposed as support beams in construction or bike racks. There is a company in the Netherlands that is turning old fridges into designer chairs . Another example is tulips. In order to produce the flower bulbs, the tulips need to flower once (creating the beautiful famous flower fields), then the flower heads are cut off and the bulbs can be sold. The colors of these flowers are amazing and can be used as pigment for paint. The business case for all of this is just incredible and much bigger than one might think. In EME’s pilot we investigated 17 waste streams from 10 companies in the Netherlands, including things like sludge and plastic, and discovered that by finding a higher value reuse option we created an additional value of €64 million. One way to start mining this is writing down what products and materials companies have (in the resources passport), rather than writing them off. The moment they realize that there is wealth in waste companies can start taking steps to log it, digitize it, trace it and actualize it. Excess materials are a goldmine, not only for their monetary value but also for their environmental and social value. Instead of relying mainly on primary resources, we envision a move to a waste-less economy in which excess materials endlessly loop through value chains.
Q: What kind of environmental impact might this have?
MAD: More than half of all GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions are related to materials management activities, according to the OECD’s Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060. If left unchecked GHG emissions related to materials management will rise to approximately 50 Gt CO2- equivalents by 2060, so moving to a circular economy would not only improve companies’ bottom line it will help the planet and aid corporates to meet their sustainability goals. The world’s industries (think extraction, manufacturing, waste management) have a big impact on nature, which we rely on for clean air, food production, natural carbon sinks etc. By creating a circular economy, the impact our economy has on nature is drastically improved.
Q: What is holding things back?
MAD: Our current economy is not designed to be circular. The way we create and dispose of our products is not set up that way. The systems in which companies operate and our legislation, are not set up to facilitate this. Neither is our financial system and the current accounting framework. The way we measure value is not currently aimed at optimizing material use and decreasing negative environmental and social impacts. Luckily, there are many companies and organizations working on this. I took on the role of director of circular economy at WBCSD to help facilitate this change and scale circular solutions.
Q: How is WBCSD tackling the issue?
MAD: WBCSD has many different projects covering nature, climate and equity action. Within the circular economy portfolio we are among others working on making the connection between circular economy and GHG emission reductions clear. We work on standardizing how to measure how circular a company or product is by using Circular Transition Indicators (CTI). CTI aims to be the leading protocol to measure circularity and is already used by over 1400 companies. We are also working on how to report on Scope 3 emissions; how to standardize data collection and sharing; and how to have standardized financial reporting on circular economy criteria. We have projects on making the electronics sector circular (via the Circular Electronics Partnership). We do a lot of work on enabling companies to make plastic packaging more sustainable and how companies can measure and report on their plastics. We dive into the business cases (financial and environmental) for various sectors to become circular and help them develop a roadmap to get there.
Q: Is there a way for interested companies to participate in WBCSD’s circular economy work?
There are two main ways: one is by joining WBCSD and helping to shape the work that we do; the other is by exploring the portfolio of amazing work the WBCSD has already developed and implementing that work into their own organizations or supply chains.
Q: What advice do you have for companies interested in becoming part of the circular economy?
MAD: Be curious. Just because something is waste for you or your company doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Question why your company is doing things a certain way and how you might do it differently and more efficiently. Set a goal of keeping materials continuously in the loop. Get into a collaborative mindset. Having one person in charge of circular economy inside a company is not sufficient. The circular economy is related to the workings of every department and the supply chain as a whole. We are in this together.