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Over the past two months, we reviewed 302 submissions to Solve’s Circular Economy Challenge. Each showcased their answer to the question: how can people create and consume goods that are renewable, repairable, reusable, and recyclable? The term “Circular Economy” has been popularized in Europe, yet 60 percent of our solutions came from the Global South, including 15 percent from South America, reflecting a global interest in finding new ways to eliminate or reuse wasted materials.
Our judges narrowed the field to 15 finalists who will attend Solve Challenge Finals on September 22 in New York City to pitch their solutions to our expert panel of judges. Sunday afternoon, we’ll announce the eight most promising teams to join our next Solver class.
A circular economy involves all of our everyday materials—plastics, our food, our clothing, and even the cement in our buildings and roads. Read on to hear about three trends in this year’s submissions, check out the 15 finalist solutions, and support your favorites by voting for them. Then, tune in on September 22 to hear them pitch at Solve Challenge Finals and see the selection of our 2019 Solver teams!
Plastic in the Global South
About one-quarter of solutions from the Global South focus on plastic waste in their own communities, often in developing economies that lack effective recycling infrastructure—or have any waste infrastructure at all. These entrepreneurs are building recycling collection infrastructure, encouraging recycling participation by making it easy or incentivizing people with prizes paid for by the sale of the material.
Other solutions leverage plastic as a raw material to make new products such as glasses, household goods, and building materials like tiles or bricks. These two approaches—better plastic collection and more productive use—are symbiotic, helping to close the loop on material waste.
Designing for Zero Waste
While many solutions focused on improving waste management and plastic recycling processes, the Challenge also sought to eliminate waste in the first place. One way innovators accomplish this is by designing products to last longer, thereby avoiding the need to track and recover materials. 42 percent of our submissions focused on this aspect.
Many entrepreneurs are applying a circular approach to specific industries and products—designing products for long-term repair, sharing expensive goods among more people, or changing processes to minimize excess materials. Examples include a closed-loop bicycle company, smoothies without food or plastic waste, tractor sharing, expandable school uniforms, and even modular and transformable buildings.
Waste as a Data Problem
Across all parts of the world, we saw many people formalizing the collection and use of data to better manage waste. Often, this includes tracing and tracking specific materials so collectors can follow more efficient paths, producers can improve wasteful processes, and recyclers can work with cleaner materials.
Other innovators are linking regional supply chains to replace long-distance goods like palm oil, or collecting excess raw materials for alternate industrial uses. Finally, innovators are using new materials and product traceability to adjust the global supply chains of major industries like apparel or packaged goods. Many of these systems draw on new artificial intelligence or big data techniques—and 36 percent of our Circular Economy solutions use at least one of these two technologies.