From repurposed EV batteries to packaging made from food waste, the Green Alley Award has announced the finalists for its annual award, which recognises businesses at the forefront of the transition to a circular economy
The EU might be banning certain single-use plastics but, according to Europe’s first prize for circular economy startups, this is only the beginning of what can be done to reduce waste and minimise pressure on natural resources.
The Green Alley Award champions and supports innovative businesses that design with scarcity, pollution and reuse in mind. In eight years, the award has attracted more than 1,400 applications from 30 countries.
The six finalists for 2022 receive help with planning and scaling their businesses, plus a chance to network with circular economy experts. At the final pitch event on 28 April in Berlin, the most promising will be awarded €25,000 (£21,035).
Many of the young businesses selected this year started with personal challenges that led to all kinds of inventions.
Keen surfers Will and Sam Boex wanted to find a way to transport their boards around the world safely but without using plastic – so the idea of Flexi-Hex was born. Today the Cornwall-based business has sold more than 2.5m lightweight, recycled paper sleeves with a clever honeycomb design. The sleeves stretch around everything from Seedlip non-alcoholic spirits, cosmetics and crockery to surfboards.
Meanwhile, three friends from their engineering student days in Germany, David Oudsandji, Roman Alberti and Afshin Doostdar, bought a campervan and set up a solar panel on it to charge their devices. Soon they started experimenting with using an old electric car battery to store up the power when the sun wasn’t shining.
“In the meantime, Roman’s father said he needed a battery for home storage [of his solar power],” says Oudsandji. “We built it in one week: we didn’t sleep that much but we had it up and running. Afterwards, we said we want to do something with purpose, to enable a future worth living. We made a plan and founded Voltfang.”
The startup now works with supermarkets, hotels and industrial partners, repurposing old electric vehicle batteries into arrays that can be used to store renewable energy – particularly for industry, to boost supply at times of peak need. They are working on certifying their product for the German market.
Scrap was also an inspiration for the co-founders of Spanish startup ScrapAd. While at a recycling machinery fair in Las Vegas, Samuel Ruiz and Sandra Montes discovered that some people had travelled more than 5,000km just to see if someone would buy their old materials. So, they launched their platform, which matches sellers with buyers, and verifies what’s on offer.
For Elena Ferrero (pictured, left), chief executive of Italy-based Atelier Riforma, fashion industry waste was the trigger to create the business, which collects and ‘retailors’ used clothes. The startup, which she founded with the aptly named Sara Secondo (pictured, right), is creating a tech solution based on artificial intelligence (AI) that can catalogue textile waste and connect it to a digital marketplace. From there, charity shops, recycling companies and ‘refashioning professionals’ can take their pick.
“The problem is that, in directing the garments to circular destinations, careful sorting is required,” says Ferrero. “Currently this process is done by hand, and requires time and resources. For this reason, nowadays less than one per cent of all textile material is recycled into new clothing.
“As soon as our prototype is finished in May 2022, we will train the AI and integrate it into the technology, and in the next few years, we’d like to transform our technology into industrial machinery to be used by more organisations.”
Image: Atelier Riforma
Also in Italy, but inspired this time by food waste, Arianna Sica, Irene Masante and Gustavo Gonzalez set their minds to the problem last year after they met during a training programme for entrepreneurs.
“Food waste is mainly generated by the rapid deterioration of some food products, in particular fruit and vegetables,” explains Gonzalez. “Our project, Agree, has developed a plant-based and biodegradable protective coating called Ally which, once applied to fruit and vegetables, can increase their shelf-life by up to three times. So, we keep fruit and vegetables that typically spoil quite fast for longer, without the need for trays or plastic wraps.”
Even better, he says, the tasteless, transparent coating, which can be sprayed on to produce and later washed off, is created from biomolecules made from agricultural products and byproducts – for example, crops that don’t comply with certain standards and would otherwise be wasted.
“We’re currently working on our first coating prototype at laboratory scale and have a couple of pilot products that should start by spring,” he adds.
Image: Bruno Galizzi
Josh Brito and Roza Janusz, co-founders of MakeGrowLab, which is based in Poland, were also inspired by food waste. They use discarded organic matter – from grass to beer waste, apples to broccoli – to make the cellulose-based Scoby Packaging Materials, which can replace plastic in packaging.
“Plastic is quite useful due to its capacity to block oxygen, which is important in the food industry for shelf-life. But the big issue is what it’s made from and the footprint it leaves,” says Brito. “We take food waste, give it a set of microbes, which break down the food to make natural fibres of cellulose. We can then use this to replace plastic in existing materials.”
The importance of visibility
Anne Lamp, chief executive and co-founder of Traceless, which won the Green Alley Award last year, says that this year’s judges are looking for revolutionary ideas, or businesses that are immediately scalable.
“I’m very attracted by startups whose approach can really make an impact, either thinking whole systems through or designing products in a way that can be completely recycled, or because they are very scalable and have real potential to go to market,” she says.
For Lamp’s own company, which makes a fully biodegradable material that can replace single-use plastics, winning the award made a huge difference to the startup’s visibility. It helped it to access accelerator programmes and communicated its key message to the public: that packaging really can be different, with a bit of imagination.
“For me as a scientist, it’s easy to prove that what you’re doing works but it’s so important to get support,” she adds. “Visibility means that others appreciate what you are doing and trust that it’s sustainable or scalable, or just that it makes sense. The Green Alley Award really emphasises this.”
Main image: Priscilla du Preez