Debunking Junk: A Decade of Rethinking Rubbish – Uncovering the Positives

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Faux leather woven from waste gelatine, packaging grown from fungi and electricity storage systems powered by old EV batteries. All trailblazing innovations paving the way to a greener, more sustainable future. All previous winners of the Green Alley Award, Europe’s first prize for circular economy startups.

This year marks the award’s 10th of recognising and nurturing outstanding alternatives to our throwaway culture.

Finnish outfit RePack took the inaugural prize back in 2014. It targeted the voluminous problem of packaging waste from shopping on the internet. In place of one-hit plastics it offers durable bags, envelopes and wallets made from recycled polypropylene. They’re designed to be used again and again. To date, the company has clocked up more than half a million reuse cycles.

Jan Patrick Schulz, CEO of the Green Alley Award

The remarkable thing about RePack is that the organisation appears unremarkable in a field of other outstanding innovators to have been recognised by the Green Alley Award. Other companies have broken new ground in fields such as bioplastics, insulation, low carbon building materials and more. It is a bulging-with-hope list of solutions that disrupt the accepted system of making products to be consumed and dumped at considerable cost to the planet.

The idea for the awards was first dreamed up by Jan Patrick Schulz, CEO of the Germany-based Landbell Group 10 years ago, addressing a pressing need to curb our runaway use of finite planetary resources by switching to a circular economy.

Starting out in 1995 as a local waste disposal company, Landbell has evolved into a closed loop innovator operating in more than 60 countries. It provides take-back schemes and advice to help other businesses both hit their own sustainability targets as well as meet environmental regulation, collecting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of batteries, e-waste and packaging a year in the process.

The mantra here is reduce, reuse and recycle and – through the Green Alley Award – Landbell showcases visionary entrepreneurs who are pioneering eco-friendly materials and turning rubbish into resources.

Back in 2014, just 79 firms took aim at the award’s €7k (£6k) top prize. This year’s winner will land a cash windfall of €25k (£21,300), and judges have the task of whittling down 339 hopefuls to a mere five who will compete in a live-pitching event at the Grand Finale in Berlin on 25 April. They’ll be joined by a sixth finalist chosen by a public vote from a long list of 20, which includes innovators making skincare products from coffee grounds, bridges from old wind turbine blades and new building materials from waste glass.

Success stories over the years include British firm Mimica – a 2021 Green Alley Award finalist – which last year landed research and development funding from the UK government. The firm is developing a temperature-sensitive food label with the potential to cut a third of seafood waste in the UK, some 9,000 tonnes a year.

10 years of innovating with waste
Some remarkable winners have won the Green Alley Award, changing how we think about rubbish
Find out more

As we grapple with the climate crisis and dwindling resources, the potential impact of circularity projects like those shortlisted in the Green Alley Award could be huge.

Research by the World Bank shows that demand for natural resources is outstripping the planet’s capacity to regenerate them by a factor of 1.75. The study also reveals that, in Europe, the share of resources derived from recycled waste increased by almost 50% in the two decades to 2022, while ambitious circular economy policies could decouple economic growth from the use of raw materials by 2032.

“We initiated the Green Alley Award 10 years ago to support entrepreneurs that take on circular economy challenges,” says Schulz. “As we gather to celebrate this milestone, we also look towards the horizon – and a new decade full of possibilities. Our commitment remains steadfast: to nurture, inspire, and elevate circular economy startups that will continue to drive change, push boundaries, and lead the way towards a more sustainable future.”

Here’s to another decade, and beyond, of wiping out waste.

Main image: Dalin Ou/iStock

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