Pioneering: A Caterpillar excavator at the Northam Platinum Booysendal mine in Mpumalanga. In SA, Barloworld recycles Caterpillar equipment, which reduces the load on raw materials such as iron ore and steel. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Pioneering: A Caterpillar excavator at the Northam Platinum Booysendal mine in Mpumalanga. In SA, Barloworld recycles Caterpillar equipment, which reduces the load on raw materials such as iron ore and steel. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Planet Earth faces the grim scenario of diminishing resources and global warming. Adopting a circular economic model is not only imperative, it is also innovative, smart and depends on new thinking rather than new technologies. And it is profitable.

The film Closing the Loop, released on Amazon on World Earth Day last week, features interviews with business and sustainability leaders who have seen the writing on the wall.

"Going circular implies a radical shift from our linear, take-make-waste economy to a circular borrow-use-return economy. The model is regenerative by design," says the World Economic Forum’s leader on sustainable production, Attila Turos.

The film is directed by Emmy Award winner Graham Sheldon and presented by Dr Wayne Visser, who holds the chair in sustainable transformation at Antwerp Management School and is a fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

"After years spent working on sustainability, I am convinced that we are on the cusp of a major revolution — nothing short of the next industrial revolution," Visser says.

John Elkington, executive chairman and cofounder of Volans Ventures, believes the world has arrived at a time of experimentation in social entrepreneurship, clean technology, integrated reporting and the circular economy. This is accompanied by "maximum confusion, uncertainty, anger, a sense of loss … and an existential challenge", he says.

It has led to a radical shift in thinking; a new kind of collaboration in industry and a vision for the world.

"Part of our problem in moving towards circularity," Elkington says, is that "most people neither see the importance of it nor exactly know how to do it."

Closing the Loop is brimming with on-site explorations, on three continents, of enterprises that have adopted the circular economy model: Barloworld/ Caterpillar (SA), Biogen (UK), Dutch Awearness (Netherlands), Interface (Netherlands and Germany), Novamont (Italy), Quito City (Ecuador) and Redisa (SA).

For Rien Otto, founder and CEO of Dutch Awearness, seeing a landfill packed with clothing in Ethiopia was a wake-up call. With support from the EU, he is on track to revolutionise the clothing industry.

"The industrial revolution started in the textile industry," Otto says.

Wearing recycled clothing has become fashionable.

"I think the circular economy basically sexes up waste, it makes it quite funky. Suddenly, you can buy a swimming costume made out of discarded fishing nets – well, what a great story," says sustainable business journalist Maxine Perella.

In the film, Visser emerges from a dressing room wearing an elegant polyester suit. Jan-Willem Weebers, cofounder of Dutch Aweareness partner WearEver, points out that the suit is "the opposite of fast fashion", which is typically cheap, of low quality, has a short lifestyle and relies on a system that utilises huge quantities of resources and fossil fuels. Visser’s new suit can be recycled up to eight times.

As it works towards its zero-waste target, new markets are opening up for the company: a carpet tile that requires half the yarn normally used has particular appeal in Scandinavian and southern European countries

"The challenge of using recyclable material is to meet the same requirements and specifications as virgin material," says Jeroen van der Vlist, a polymer chemistry scientist at the Applied Polymer Innovations Institute.

Dutch Awearness has also teamed up with clothing manufacturer Tricorp to make construction workers’ uniforms from circular material.

Dura Vermeer, one of the largest construction companies in the Netherlands, outfits its employees in circular workwear and collaborates with Dutch Awearness to convert textile waste into alternative construction materials in a process known as urban mining.

Visser’s quest takes him from the clothing industry to carpet manufacturing factory Interface, where he interviews Ton van Keken, its senior vice-president of operations.

The company’s Mission Zero 2020 strategy is based on three possibilities for recycling carpets: they can be washed and resold; put through a machine that separates the backing from the fibre and made into new carpets; or burned for energy.

As it works towards its zero-waste target, new markets are opening up for the company: a carpet tile that requires half the yarn normally used has particular appeal in Scandinavian and southern European countries.

In the UK, energy firm Biogen takes almost a 250,000 tonnes of food waste from households, manufacturing plants, retailers and restaurants, and transforms it into renewable energy. A by-product is nitrogen-rich biofertiliser, which enables farmers to produce a much higher yield than is possible with the usual chemical fertilisers.

Biogen’s former CEO, Julian O’Neill, says huge amounts of food waste still go to landfills and incinerators and legislative support is key to changing this.

Quito in Equador is as rich in biodiversity as it is in companies and citizens trying to preserve resources. Local government spearheads several sustainability initiatives. One example is a company that recycles Tetra Pak, which is such a difficult material to recycle that people pay lots of money to get rid of it.

Using a variety of processes, EcoPak takes used Tetra Pak packaging and produces roofs that last 30 years, hand-woven furniture, jewellery, and bathroom and kitchen accessories.

In SA, Barloworld recycles Caterpillar equipment. "When you invest in something like this, you take a long-term view on it … the return is not only to Barloworld, but to the country, to the world. You can’t quantify that," says Lesibana Ledwaba, executive director for operational transformation and strategy at Barloworld Equipment.

"Through remanufacturing, we are able to give customers components at a fraction of what it would cost to get a new one. When we remanufacture, it also reduces the load on raw materials such as iron ore and steel."

"Our role as processors or as a recycler," says Mehran Zarrebini, CEO of Durban-based tyre recycling group Mathe, "is to help form an innovation perspective; to try and work with other industries to create innovative products from the products that we are producing here, and also to work with research institutions to try and generate more innovation."

The film conveys the message that there is a long road ahead but already plenty of inspiration and best practices to show the way.

"I think businesses have to lead. I haven’t seen the leadership that the world needs from governments," says Christopher Davis, director of corporate social responsibility for The Body Shop International.

Marks & Spencer’s director of sustainable business, Mark Barry, says he will not be satisfied until "hundreds of thousands of companies servicing hundreds of millions of customers are really doing circular".

Interface’s Van Keken’s message to companies is: "I would say … if you turn your own people into believers, and they see that something has to change, then they become ambassadors at work, with your customers and with your supply chain.

"It starts with top leadership and management having that vision and supporting implementation. To play a role in a revolution like this is very exciting and very stimulating – that is true for me and that is true for all our employees."

• Closing the Loop will be launched at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg on June 13 at 6pm.