Finding opportunities in the reverse cycle

Image: Nicola Twilley / Visual Hunt CC BY-NC-SA

Cirkle Finding opportunities in the reverse cycle

Identifying undervalued flows of materials, energy or information can be tricky. Sometimes however, the opportunity seems to be hiding in plain sight.

With the rise of online shopping, home delivery and ‘on-demand’ business models, logistics and courier services have become commonplace on the streets of towns and cities around the world. For the most part, these businesses are only concerned with the outward journey - delivering a product or services to a customer. But some forward thinking companies are optimising their business model to generate multiple benefits from the previously undervalued return journey.

Initially an organic produce delivery service, Belgian startup Cirkle have found a business opportunity by capitalising on two elements. Firstly, their established logistics network, and secondly a frustration shared by almost every citizen: proper disposal of household waste.

Cirkle’s origins go back to 2008 when no other company was offering an organic grocery delivery service in Brussels. Sourcing fresh ingredients every day from their partner suppliers and local shops, where possible they only use locally grown fruit, vegetables and meat, with the target set to sell 80% of their fresh produce from Belgium farms.

However, right from its inception, the company set out to provide more than just a delivery business and within six months were already collecting items in addition to ensuring their economically-viable redistribution. Cirkle now have a fleet of vans and drivers who personally deliver seasonal produce with a return logistics service including the collection of recyclables, dry cleaning and charity collections.

Image: Tom Blois / Visualhunt CC BY-NC-SA
Image: Tom Blois / Visualhunt CC BY-NC-SA

Taking back over 20 waste streams from their customers, everything that can be re-used goes directly to charities while the rest goes to recycling companies. Part of the appeal for customers might lie in the types of materials collected, which include some of the items that can cause confusion, frustration and inconvenience when it comes to household disposal. The average citizen may not know whether things like batteries, electronic waste, printer cartridges, water filters, light bulbs and coffee capsules actually have value, or what the best process is to capture that value. To reach a circular economy, many items like this will need to be re-thought at the design stage to take out this frustration. For now, Cirkle help optimise the redistribution of these materials.

Cooking oil is another household waste problem for a number of residents. In Cirkle’s model, oil is collected and sold to produce biodiesel. Proceeds go to Cirkle’s ‘charity of the month’ while the resulting biodiesel is used to fuel their delivery vans. One hundred percent of the money received from the recycling process then goes directly to charities.

We have a philosophy of providing quality produce and a personalised service by supporting local producers and getting to know our customers. We are continuously looking for ways to be better, and take a holistic approach to ecological and social issues.

- Benjamin Bramich, Founder of Cirkle

Originally reliant on ‘word of mouth’, the company grew quickly over the first few years. To ensure their profile and service is raised to the next level, they accepted an investment from SI², a social impact fund active in the Benelux region. Only interested in companies that generate high social impact and fair financial return, the SI² Fund was formed to support innovative businesses with social missions at the heart of their activities, while operating in a competitive market environment.

Through a clear understanding of the company’s place in the wider economy, Cirkle now re-use or recycle more waste than they actually create, and monetise collected refuse for the benefit of local charities.

Founder Benjamin Bramich now plans to reduce emissions to such an extent that their service becomes more energy efficient than customers doing their own shopping and recycling, whilst maintaining that both business and social values are compatible and profitable. Measuring the multiple benefits of this model won't be easy, but systems optimisation of this type will be essential in the transition to a circular economy.