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Circular economy class of 2023: meet the fresh crop of waste-busting startups

Public voting has opened for the 2023 Green Alley Award, which recognises pioneering circular startups in Europe. From cigarette butt recycling to the textiles made from waste human hair, here’s the longlist

Public voting has opened for the 2023 Green Alley Award, which recognises pioneering circular startups in Europe. From cigarette butt recycling to the textiles made from waste human hair, here’s the longlist

The road to a global circular economy is, by its very nature, full of dips and turns. Though sustainability legislation is forcing organisations to make changes and consumer awareness of the importance of being eco-friendly is increasing, businesses need to continue to push the envelope. Thankfully, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to disrupt established thinking. 

The annual Green Alley Award aims to champion the European startups working in recycling, waste prevention and digital solutions – three areas the organisers believe have high potential for impact. Voting is now open until 20 February for the public to nominate their favourite from the longlist below. That startup will then compete against five others chosen by an expert committee, to be in with a chance to win €25,000 (£22,099).


The average person at an open-air concert or football match leaves 2.5 litres of waste behind them. The Italian startup Aira is tackling that challenge with its smart bin, which recognises and sorts rubbish as it’s thrown away, compacting it inside to save space. Early pilots have improved event recycling rates from 30 per cent to 90 per cent, and there are plans to develop home and municipality versions of the bin in future. 

Image: Anthony Delanoix


The fashion industry accounts for approximately 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse gases (more than aviation and shipping combined) and a fifth of the world’s plastic production. Enter the BCome sustainability platform, which aims to improve transparency across the fashion supply chain. Three years after launching in 2019 in Barcelona, there are now more than one million BCome tracked fashion products on the market.

Image: BCome


During the pandemic, e-commerce has boomed – and it doesn’t show signs of abating. Every second, 5,000 parcels are shipped worldwide, and this figure is predicted to double by 2026. In Germany, Ceres has developed a plastic-free, fully compostable packing material based out of straw. It’s a sustainable, affordable alternative to styrofoam chips or air cushions made of plastic, and makes use of the 13m tons of straw discarded as an agricultural byproduct every year.

Image: Ceres

Circular Technologies

Almost two thirds of the e-waste produced in Europe goes straight to landfill, where toxic substances such as lead and mercury can leach into soil and water. Circular Technologies is developing a digital marketplace where organisations can sell their used equipment, and buy or lease refurbished IT products. All transactions come with an environmental impact calculation, so businesses can see how their carbon footprint is improving.

Image: John Cameron


Rising consumer awareness and the impact of legislation have led more businesses to look for sustainable packaging alternatives, but it can be an overwhelming sector to navigate. Circulate, based in Sweden, is a platform and marketplace that helps small and medium enterprises define their packaging needs and find eco-friendly providers in a one-stop shop. Its founder hopes to help green packaging alternatives find scale and to quicken the pace of change across industries.

Image: Erda Estremera 

CU Mehrwegsystem

Two decades ago, Germany became the first big European country to adopt a bottle deposit scheme. Now, around 98 per cent of beverage containers are returned and CU Mehrwegsystem wants to extend the idea to food packaging. Manufacturers fill CU’s lightweight containers with dry food such as sweets, oats, rice and pasta, which people can return to deposit machines in the supermarket after consumption, ready to be refilled. CU takes care of managing the system, including logistics and cleaning.

Image: CU Mehrwegsystem

FPD Recycling

According to the UN, waste electronics is the fastest growing and most hazardous waste stream globally. Based at the University of Limerick in Ireland, FPD Recycling is tackling the challenge head on by focusing on flat-panel displays, such as TVs. Its fully automated, AI-powered robotic system can process up to 90 units per hour, saving recycling workers from exposure to harmful substances including mercury and lead, and extracting precious materials to be sold on. Such ‘urban mining’ enables recyclers to become more profitable and scalable, and reduces the EU’s dependency on critical raw materials.

Image: FPD Recycling


FreyZein in Austria was founded to disrupt the outdoor fashion industry’s over-reliance on synthetics and fibres made from petrochemicals, such as nylon and polyester. The brand focuses on sustainable, high-quality outerwear that’s made from its own bio-based, fully circular fibre, which is water repellent and breathable. Each item in the range goes into production once a certain number has been pre-ordered (thereby minimising waste), and additions such as zips are biodegradable.  

Image: FreyZein

Vote for your favourite circular startup Public voting is now open for the Green Alley Award, Europe’s first startup prize for the circular economy. Cast your vote by 20 February 2023 Vote now
Human Maple

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with 4.5tn discarded every year. The impact is huge – plastic filters do not decompose, harmful chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals infect the ground and water, and wildlife sometimes even mistake them for food. In Italy, Human Maple has devised a project to educate smokers about the dangers of littering, while collecting and recycling cigarette butts via smart ashtrays. After a recycling process where tobacco, ash and paper is removed, the remaining cellulose acetate in the butts is turned into padding material for duvets, toys, jackets or heat-insulation material for greenhouses.

Image: Human Maple

Human Material Loop

Human hair might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to sustainable fashion, but it has the same structural makeup as wool, is hypoallergenic, and has a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel. The founders of Human Material Loop, based in the Netherlands, think it’s an ideal alternative to the synthetics that now make up more than 60 per cent of textiles and take 200 years to decompose. Waste hair is collected from salons and treated before being used in products such as high-performance outerwear. The company’s co-founder plans to wear a prototype jacket and trousers, which have been filled with waste hair for insulation, during an expedition to the mountains in Argentina.

Image: Human Material Loop


Austria-based MATЯ was only founded in 2022 but has already picked up a slew of industry awards. It’s spearheading an innovative solution to a waste problem that’s the size of 20,000 stacked Eiffel Towers: waste mattresses. Up to 30m reach end-of-life every year in Europe, of which about 60 per cent wind up in landfill. Most of the foam, latex, spring cores and textiles can theoretically be recycled but are usually glued together and hard to separate. MATЯ has invented a 99 per cent recyclable mattress for hotels that is made of only two materials – steel and polyester – and is easy to separate and recycle. The carbon footprint is 50 per cent less than a conventional mattress.

Image: Vladislav Muslakov


Part of the issue with reducing the amount of virgin plastic used in packaging is how difficult it can be to reliably and cost-effectively source recycled plastic. Mikacycle’s online marketplace links all parties of the supply chain together in a closed-loop plastic waste recycling ecosystem. It has set up collection programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America to increase the amount of recycled plastic available, and is using blockchain and the internet of things to track the recycled plastics’ origin and movement, and gain regulatory approval across borders.

Image: Nick Fewings 


Polystyrene is low in cost, cheap to buy and protects everything from takeaways to human organs. But it’s also slow to degrade, can leach chemicals into the environment, and is resource-intensive to manufacture. In Kyiv, S.Lab has created a natural alternative made from hemp and mycelium (the body of fungi that mushrooms are made of). It’s biodegradable in soil within a month, plus it’s waterproof, very strong and reliable across different applications. The team is now working on pilot projects with L’Oreal, Sony and Samsung.

Image: S.Lab


It’s estimated that $10bn (£8.1bn) of precious metals such as gold and platinum accumulate each year in the mountain of electronic waste that’s polluting the planet. As part of his MBA project, the founder of Simby has created a marketplace for sales and auctions of used electrical and electronic equipment. Recyclers have access to a much wider pool of clients, and businesses and individuals can dispose of their e-waste responsibly.

Image: Emile Perron

Sustein Materials

Healthcare and construction are two of the most wasteful sectors in the world. Hospitals are reliant on single-use plastic, sending more than 70m tons of waste per year to landfill. Construction, meanwhile, is responsible for 50 per cent of all natural resource extraction in Europe and a significant portion of the world’s landfill volumes. Founded in Barcelona, Sustein Materials has designed a solution that brings these two industries together in a circular way. Using sterilised healthcare waste from hospitals, it’s created water-resistant, customisable material to use in thermal insulation and sound-proofing, as well as kitchen and furniture design.

Image: Sustein Materials


The global south has long been the recipient of container ships full of waste plastic, so that wealthier nations can reduce the volume in domestic landfills. Takatari, founded in Estonia, aims to connect the informal recycling sector of these nations with the circular economy. It does this by using mobile and web applications, blockchain and traceability tools to track and facilitate the brokerage of recycled plastics and plastic credits. The goal is to pay living wages to all collectors, by passing on a share of the revenue made from their tracked waste. Following two pilots in India and Egypt, the team plans to roll out the software and services further in 2023.

Image: Dustan Woodhouse 


Only three in 10 laptop owners have ever bought a used laptop. Rather than being refurbished and having a shot at second life, many discarded devices end up at landfills in Ghana, where 250,000 tons of e-waste are sent every year. UK-based Tazaar aims to bring accountability to the lifecycle of electronic products by creating digital product passports that trace items at every stage. By providing an accessible digital record, it’s hoped that manufacturers and users will be encouraged to reuse, repair, recycle and dispose of e-waste responsibly.

Image: Seth Dixon


There are more than 250 different types of plastic that cannot be recycled together, but identifying and separating them is nearly impossible for much of the world’s existing infrastructure. Veridis in the Netherlands has created the first scalable material analysis technology that identifies the different pieces of plastic in a batch using thermal technology. It’s a solution that has the potential to increase the commercial value of recycled plastics, and provide certainty in the recycled plastic material stream.

Image: Veridis


Znika – or disappears’ in English – specialises in producing eco-friendly labels and packaging made from plant-based materials, such as corn starch, grass, and grape waste. Founded in Poland, the startup has developed bubble wrap, adhesive tape, envelopes, mailer bags, sachets and more, which are all plastic-free and designed to decompose after use. It aims to provide viable alternatives to the 141m tonnes of plastic packaging produced around the world each year, with more designs in the pipeline.

Image: Znika

Zori Tex

Every second, a truckload of textiles is dumped in a landfill or incinerated somewhere in the world. It’s a statistic that horrified the British founders of Zori Tex when they worked in fashion. Their solution combines sensor and AI technologies to optimise textile waste sorting and scale the textile-to-textile recycling industry. The goal is to dramatically reduce the virgin consumption of materials, which will lower the carbon emissions, water use and waste generated by this sector.

Image: Greg Rosenke
Main image: Disruptivo

Positive News readers can vote for their favourite startup here. The one with the most votes will be included among the six shortlisted startups who will present their ideas to an international jury in Berlin on 27 April. Get your vote in before 20 February 2023.

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