On a sailing trip in the Caribbean, Christian Schiller got caught in a carpet of plastic waste. This shock gave rise to the idea for Cirplus, a digital trading platform for used plastics. Since December 2018, the start-up entrepreneur and his team have been successfully connecting brand owners and producers with recyclers–and would not mind saving the world with it–as he explains in our interview.
Why hasn't a marketplace like Cirplus been around for 20 years, ideally acting globally?
Good question! Unfortunately, the statement that the value chain has to work together is actually often just an empty phrase–in reality, many cook their own soup. For a long time, plastics producers were not at all interested in recycling because they wanted to sell their new goods. For companies, high-quality recycled plastics were not in demand for a long time or were far too expensive. Fortunately, the trend can no longer be stopped and the market is changing!
Your drive to do something about plastic waste grew out of a personal experience during your trip around the world. What happened after that? How did the idea for Cirplus come about?
After returning to Germany, I went into the business start-up program of the British venture capitalist Entrepreneur First with the abstract idea that “you should be able to do something with plastic waste.” Everyone just called me “The Plastic Guy.” I got to know my co-founder Volkan Bilici, who is at home in the world of web technologies and blockchain applications and who has two years of experience in the plastics processing industry. During my 4.5 years at Blablacar, I learned how to convert offline transactions (carpooling) into a digital business model. From all of this, the platform concept and the idea for Cirplus arose.
What was the market situation like when you started Cirplus three years ago?
The recycling market is a book with seven seals–fragmented and chaotic. When I started, the first thing to do was find out: Who can actually recycle what and in what quantities? The demand for recycled plastics is now enormous! Our job is to make purchasing and sales as easy and convenient as online shopping. With the digitization of the plastic product cycle, we are taking a giant step on the way to 100% circular plastics. It will be challenging, but we have to tackle it, not because it is easy, but because it is complicated!
My biggest sin is flying. I am passionate about traveling. I'm a passionate surfer–now more in Portugal than overseas. I don't own a car (never) and I ride my bike a lot. You do what you can. But of course, there is still room for improvement.
Let's take a look at the fashion market. Many brands already work with fibers and yarns made from plastic. What is your assessment of recycling in the textile industry?
Basically, the textile industry is ready to spend a lot of money–but I see that very critically. The industry is picking up an incredible amount of PET material from the market. Every second brand now sells recycled polyester made from PET bottles. Plastic packers refer to this as downcycling because food-grade material becomes textile fiber, which in turn is difficult to recycle–in other words, the highest quality material we have, PET bottles, is withdrawn from the packaging market. And with that, they're driving up the price of recycled plastics even further.
What do you suggest? How are you doing better?
Ideally, textiles produce their goods in such a way that they can also be recycled again, i.e. the products can be turned back into textile fibers in a closed loop. This is called cradle2cradle–textile fiber to textile fiber recycling. It’s still incredibly difficult, because of the composites, additives, etc. But a lot is happening here at the moment. New technologies are being developed everywhere. Sweden is currently building the world's largest recycling plant for plastic packaging. I'm pretty sure that if you really make an effort and everyone involved, i.e. product designers, materials scientists and recyclers, work together, a lot will be possible here in the future.
Let's take a shampoo bottle: The “Design for Recycling” process is about thinking about how it has to be built, what mechanical, chemical and marketing functions it has to fulfill as packaging so that it can be recycled well in the end. It is thought in a circular way–not linearly.
Let's say I run an online fashion shop and want my packaging made from recycled plastic design. How does the process work with Cirplus?
The customer goes to the platform with his purchasing specifications and either immediately finds what he is looking for–which is rather difficult in the currently very tight recyclate market–or reports his specific needs through us. The manufacturers then see very transparently that there is a new interested party who needs XY tons of XY material and is willing to pay the sum Z. The platform acts as a classic trading platform through which everything is processed up to the initiation of a contract. Thanks to Cirplus, you don't have to pick up the phone anymore.
What has to happen so that the topic of recycling picks up even more momentum?
The EU Commission is currently working on minimum quotas for recycled materials, which means that brand manufacturers are being forced to use recycled material. At the moment, capacities are a problem. There are simply not enough recyclates on the market. The number of recycling companies must and will multiply. And that's good news for the planet. Until now it was economically pointless to recycle–that's why nobody invested, that's why the technology stopped in the ‘90s. That is changing right now. The externalities of the climate crisis must be included in the market–then the capitalist tiger automatically goes to the more sustainable business models, because these are then ultimately cheaper.
From the automotive and packaging industries to the construction industry: everyone wants recycled plastics, and the trend is rising. With Cirplus we currently manage a material inventory of 1.1 million tons, in five years the recycled plastics market (ideally the world) will account for at least 25% of the quantities, currently it is 7%.
What is your vision?
I hope that our corporate vision will become a reality: Let's make plastic waste history!