Words by Fiona McGowan
Fiona McGowan meets Dan Dicker, founder of ashortwalk, a Cornish company embracing the circular economy.
The idea of a circular economy – making high-value products from waste – may just be one of the solutions to our climate crisis. We’re entering a new decade, and unless you have been asleep or wilfully ignorant, you will feel some level of anxiety about the state of our planet. Remember the holes in the ozone layer and the terrifying prospect that we would lose the protective shield of atmosphere around the Earth?
Back then, quietly, in laboratories and on policy panels around the world, something happened. Our governments listened to the solutions given by scientists. The hole was caused by chemicals including a propellant used in aerosols (chloro-fluoro-carbons or CFCs) and refrigeration chemicals. Within a handful of years, those chemicals were all but banned from products. We screwed up. Big time. And then we fixed it. There were protests and there was plenty of negative media and fear-mongering – but mainly, there were people providing solutions.
Fast forward 40 years. We are facing another global crisis. It is bigger and more visible than any we have faced before. The fallout of our entire post-industrial consumption and dependence on fossil fuels is damaging the environment and heating up our planet at unprecedented rates. The throwaway plastics made from oil are polluting our oceans and destroying our ecosystems. The fumes are creating global warming. Our kids are railing against the environmental crisis while having no idea how to control their own addiction to consumption and technology. And we know it’s not fear-mongering, because David Attenborough says it’s true.
It may all seem insurmountable, but if nothing else, humans are adaptable and nature is resilient. The ozone holes not only stopped growing, they actually began to shrink. Without the pollutant, the atmosphere regenerated all on its own.
We’ve been told that in order to reverse the effects of carbon pollution and global warming, all we have to do is plant millions of trees. There are solutions to plastic waste – plastic bag tax turned around the consumption in this country almost overnight. China has vowed to reduce plastic waste. Carbon neutral plans are afoot all over the world. While oil is still the godfather of greed, war and power, the smart money is going on alternative energy. It’s hard to turn away from the rainforest devastation and the wildfires in Australia, and it’s hard to imagine that a company based in a series of low, ‘bungaloid’ buildings on a tiny, scrubby bit of Cornish coastland could be having any impact at all.
But come with me for a moment. Costa coffee. Starbucks. McDonalds. Names synonymous with success and mass consumption. But they are all engaged in the circular economy.
Take your ‘paper’ coffee cups (which are plastic coated) and plastic cups. We throw away about 10 billion of them every year. Until fairly recently, they were so hard to recycle that waste companies didn’t bother collecting them. “Recycling companies could make about £50 a tonne if they collected paper cups,” explains Dan Dicker, product designer, inventor and founder of ashortwalk. “So, no-one was doing it.” Dan, however, had an idea. If he could create a high-value product from those cups, he could approach the waste companies and give them a better offer.
His background in industrial engineering and as a product designer for maverick vacuum-cleaner brand Dyson, Dan knew exactly how to design for and assess the potential outcomes.
His business has been running for 17 years, and he’s seen some comfortable success since he and his wife set up their home on the Cornish coast in 2003. In the early days, he was making ‘tide clocks’ (which tell you the high and low tide times all year round) out of recycled materials and sustainable cork. He sells gorgeous plant pots made from recycled plastic milk bottles (mixed with stone dust to give them an authentic ceramic look). And he created house name plaques made from old black plastic plant pots (they look exactly like slate, but are ten times more durable).
It was when he discovered that plastic and paper cups can be recycled that he hit on the idea of a durable plastic cup entirely made from waste. Dan formed a partnership with polymer experts Nextek, and found a recycling company in north Wales that could turn shredded cups into plastic pellets. He collaborated with a cup collection company called Simply Cups, and then convinced international waste company Veolia to pick up cups from coffee outlets all over the country, clean and sort them before shipping them off to north Wales.
And of course, he designed an iconic product. The rCUP is simple, functional and aesthetically pleasing. The large disc on top of the lid pops up to enable you to drink from it without removing the lid – way better than those sloppy little holes on the top of your takeaway lids. And – get this – you depress the disc and the cup is entirely leak-proof. I don’t need to tell you quite how remarkable that is.
What is particularly fascinating about the process is the economics of it. “Before we got involved, cups weren’t being recycled. Although they technically could be,” Dan explains. “But when we said ‘we can take those cups and process them into a high-value product’, the intrinsic value of that waste goes from £50 a tonne to £1,200 a tonne.”
Creating a £12 coffee cup makes the business model work, he says. About six paper or plastic cups go into one £12 rCUP. The value of those disposable cups is pence. But they are going into a high value product.
Initially, the recycled pellets were being sent to China, where the cups were manufactured – partly to reduce costs and partly because one of the first big markets for rCUP was Australia. This year, however, rCUP is closing the circle of the ‘circular economy’. The cups are being made in a factory in St Austell which is diversifying from making specialist medical products.
In a globalised marketplace, the circular economy bucks the trend. Academics at the Exeter University-based Centre for Circular Economy have shown that the most efficient way to make money within a circular economy is to keep the production regional. A regional support organisation called Tevi supports Cornish businesses to get involved. The message is simple: collect waste locally, process it locally and manufacture new products locally. Of course, the market can be as broad as you like. Dan’s ashortwalk company sells 800,000 cups a year globally. At £12 a cup, that’s big business.
“We’ve got two missions as a company,” says Dan. “It’s really quite simple. One is to make a living. Two is to make a difference. The best way to make a difference is not just adopting the circular economy principles, but showcasing them. To promote them to as many people as possible. Government, industry, consumers and the general public.”
Today, ashortwalk employs 12 people, consults for the government and works with academics at Exeter University to advocate the circular economy in the south west. The company has been invited to international conferences to demonstrate the economic success of a regional circular economy.
Ashortwalk is still coming up with new ideas. The latest is a beverage bin. If you drink out of it, says Dan, it’s high-value recyclable material. Glass, cans, plastic bottles, paper cups… The idea is being trialled on Exeter University campus, and Cornwall Council is keen to put them on high streets throughout the county. And then there’s recycled plastic trays for McDonalds, and play equipment made from old plastic toys. Oh, and a durable water bottle made entirely from single-use plastic water bottles. The list is endless. Which is a good thing – the world needs more solutions and less doom and gloom.
As Dan says: “I think we’re in really exciting times. Although it’s full of negativity, it’s actually really inspiring. We’re living in a period where suddenly we woke up and actually started to do something.” His enthusiasm is palpable and infectious: “As a company, we’re never going to be negative. We won’t highlight all the things going wrong. We will only ever talk about solutions and positivity. Everyone just needs it.”