Oliver Balch talks to Kelly Hall of DSM-Niaga about the Dutch start-up’s approach to making household items, from mattresses to carpeting, fully recyclable
The Turritopsis dohrnii is known as the immortal jellyfish because it is capable of a remarkable biological trick. When it gets old or sick or suffers a shock, this tiny tentacled sea creature is able to transform the state of its cells and revert to its nascent polyp stage, effectively beginning life again.
The magical medusa is inspiration for DSM-Niaga, a startup venture within the Netherlands-based material science company DSM, whose lab-coated product engineers are looking to perform a similarly regenerative feat with bulky household items such as carpets, furniture and mattresses.
Anything can be redesigned if you have the right partners and you put the right scientists and technologists and process engineers together
Niaga is “again”, spelled backwards, so the company’s circular philosophy is in the name. It is also in its mission to design products in such a way that they can be reused ad infinitum.
“Anything can be redesigned if you have the right partners and you put the right scientists and technologists and process engineers together,” says Kelly Hall, DSM-Niaga’s energetic managing director. In post since January 2018, she describes her twin passions as “messy turnarounds” and “innovation programmes to drive growth”.
Six years after entering into a joint venture with Niaga’s original partners, and nearly a year on from becoming the enterprise’s sole owners, DSM’s big-ticket bet on circular manufacturing has yet to turn a profit. By Hall’s reckoning, that should change by 2023 or 2024, but she makes no bones about the challenges ahead.
Commercial glues frequently represent the sticking point (no pun intended) for the recycling of bulky items such as furniture or carpets, since most manufacturers fix different materials together so permanently that detaching them after use is nigh-on impossible.
DSM-Niaga’s patented solution is a non-toxic polyester-based adhesive that competes with conventional products on strength but just requires the application of heat or microwaves for the materials to separate with ease.
This process is only needed when the use of multiple materials is unavoidable. If a product can be made with a single material – be it wood, fabric or, as most commonly in DSM-Niaga’s case, polyester – then the company’s credo is that it is simpler to remake like-for-like.
The startup has some impressive product examples to its name already. Like the world’s first fully recyclable, toxic-free, premium mattress, which it helped produce in collaboration with Auping, a premier mattress manufacturer in the Netherlands. Or the machine-washable, fully recyclable rug made from old water bottles it created in partnership with US rug brand Canary.
Manufacturers know the future is coming, but pulling the trigger, especially in uncertain economic times, is a big request
According to management consultancy McKinsey, circular economy business models could be worth $4.5tn by 2030. Moreover, pro-circularity firms like DSM-Niaga have a powerful ally in the European Commission, which recently announced an ambitious circular economy action plan that should see billions of euros pumped into the sector.
Hall has no fears about being crowded out by larger players: “It is going to take lots of companies like us in order to change $100bn of consumer goods from today’s way [of manufacturing] to the future way, so there’s plenty of room for others to be successful in this kind of innovation.”
However, as DSM-Niaga’s slow journey to profitability demonstrates, there are hurdles this ambitious cradle-to-cradle champion will need to overcome.
The most obvious one is gaining a foothold in the market. DSM-Niaga’s strategy here rests on collaboration with small and medium-sized manufacturers in its focus categories. The model is for these established players to commercialise recyclable products created in association with DSM-Niaga and then, as consumer demand grows, for DSM-Niaga to sell back to these partners its adhesive solutions and related products from DSM’s wider portfolio.
The problem is getting manufacturers to bite, admits Hall. DSM-Niaga has conducted advanced trials with 20 or so European manufacturers, which, says Hall, have evidenced “no shortage of interest” but only a handful of production contracts.
“They [manufacturers] know the future is coming and they are preparing for it but pulling the trigger, especially in uncertain economic times, ... is just a big request,” she says.
There is a wonderful dialogue happening among our frontrunners that this huge mess could be an opportunity when the lights go back on
After an internal shake-up last year, DSM’s in-house circularity venture has emerged with a rejigged strategy. Going forward, it plans to plough its energies into just a few frontrunners that are willing to “stick their necks out and be disruptive”, says Hall.
However, the timing at present is far from ideal. If manufacturers were reticent to take the leap before the Covid-19 pandemic, then the current market turmoil will make them more cautious still. But Hall, who used to head up sales at the Fortune 500 adhesive and packaging manufacturer Avery Dennison, sees a silver lining to today’s economic crisis.
“There is a wonderful dialogue happening among our frontrunners that this huge mess could be an opportunity, because, when the lights go back on, we can take advantage of being the leaders to show a better way” with products that generate less pollution, contain fewer toxins and hazardous substances, and – above all – can be reused indefinitely, Hall says.
The problem is that the titans of consumer capitalism rely on constant consumption. Even more importantly, so do the raw material suppliers that service them: ie the timber firms, the mining companies, the fabric producers, the plastic manufacturers, the chemical corporations, and so on.
It will be up to governments to level the playing field, Hall suggests, in particular to build out more comprehensive recycling infrastructure. If this were to be paid for through stricter extended producer responsibility rules, then Hall, for one, would not complain.
Some greater clarity on the term “recycling” would also be most welcome. At present, most recycling is actually downcycling, she argues. As for “re-use”, most interpret the term to mean “kicking the dust off” an item and re-selling it; a far cry from the full-scale cleaning, melting and working back that goes into a like-for-like product that DSM-Niaga focuses on.
If people see Niaga on a piece of furniture or on a mattress, we want them to know that it’s designed for reuse
“It takes time to explain what we mean by recycle and reuse,” Hall says. “We don’t want people to think that we are reusing a mattress that a kid has peed on.”
But she welcomes the focus on the design of products in the European Commission’s new Circular Economy Action Plan “especially the intention to widen the Ecodesign Directive to focus on circularity”.
DSM-Niaga is applying circular business models. Its partnership with Auping includes a leasing option for customers. In this way, it establishes an ongoing relationship that then facilitates the product’s recovery at a later date.
Many of the products that DSM-Niaga helps bring to market also carry its tag. Some, like the Canary rug, include an explicit prompt to consumers [see image below]. For the most part, however, the company’s hope is that its logo will gain recognition among mechanical recyclers, prompting them to mine the product for its raw materials rather than incinerate or dump it.
“If people see Niaga on a piece of furniture or on a mattress, we want them to know that it’s designed for reuse, and once they’re done with it to let us know because we want to get it on a fast track to another life,” says Hall.
In an ideal scenario, Hall envisions centralised collection centres run by the likes of Swedish retailer IKEA, where products of the same basic material – be it a polyester t-shirt from Gap, a polyester towel from IKEA itself or a polyester rug from DSM-Niaga – could be jointly collected and reprocessed.
It is by no means certain that a break with a “linear” mode of production and consumption will come; circularity’s success depends on startups like DSM-Niaga showing that it can work in practice.
Unfortunately, unlike the Turritopsis dohrnii, they will only get one shot at it. For Hall and her colleagues, it’s now or never.
Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to Ethical Corporation since 2004. He also writes for The Guardian among other UK and international media.
This article is part of our in-depth Circular Economy briefing. See also:
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How Covid-19 has brought circularity into sharp focus for PhilipsDSM Canary circular economy Auping European Commission Covid-19 Coronavirus Circular Economy Action Plan Ecodesign Directive Ikea