Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Martijn Lopes Cardozo, Circularity Expert

Martijn Lopes Cardozo is the CEO of Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based think tank that empowers businesses, cities, and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action. He is a frequent speaker at conferences such as the World Economic Forum, COP and TEDx.  A serial entrepreneur, Cardozo built several successful companies in software, mobile and digital media in California. After he came back to the Netherlands Cardozo decided to focus his energy on transitioning the world from a “take, make and dispose” linear economy to a circular economy in which materials can be upcycled and reused. Prior to joining Circle Economy he served for six years as the CEO of Black Bear Carbon, a circular economy company that retrieves high-value materials from end-of-life tires.  Cardozo, who holds an MSc in Applied Physics from TU Delft and an MBA from Harvard Business School, is a scheduled speaker at DLD Circular in Munich on September 7. He recently spoke to The Innovator about why businesses and governments need to become part of the circular economy.

Q: What is the current state of circularity? 

MLC: Today, global circularity has fallen from 9.1% to 7.2%, according to the 2023 Circularity Gap Report. This means that although more than 100 billion tonnes of materials are extracted from the planet annually, only 7.2% are cycled back into the global economy. The world used more virgin resources in the last 10 years than were used in the previous century. To reverse the overshoot of planetary boundaries and limit global warming to a 2-degree increase, we need a holistic shift toward circularity.

Q: What are the primary things holding circularity back?

MLC: The world is still taking a make-and-waste approach. More than 90% of materials are either wasted, lost, or remain unavailable for reuse for years as they are locked into long-lasting stock such as buildings and machinery.

Q: How do we change this?

MLC: There are many courses of action. I’m a serial entrepreneur and initially focused mainly on digital when I was based on the West Coast of the U.S. When I came back to Europe, I really felt the need to combine my entrepreneurial spirit with a social purpose and I saw an opportunity. The energy transition is already well under way but the other 50% of factors leading to climate change have to do with materials and we are just scratching the surface there. There is a business opportunity to combine a good economic model with addressing a big environmental problem.

Q: You were the CEO of Netherlands-based Black Bear Carbon, which was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. Can you speak about how that company is tackling the materials problem?

MLC: Every year, more than 1.5 billion end-of-life tires enter the global waste stream. Only now are there sustainable solutions. Some 70% get burned or go into landfills. These tires contain three core materials: steel, rubber and black powder that can be used to make carbon black, which is used in many consumer products as well as tires. Black Bear upcycles end-of-life tires into high-quality sustainable carbon black products as well as tire pyrolytic oil and gas, which can be used for creating new tires, using a circular business model. From an economic perspective waste tires are almost free, so it is quite a good economic model, but it is not easy because it is necessary to build out infrastructure and factories.

Q: Are you optimistic that more circularity materials initiatives will emerge?

MLC: Yes, I’m very optimistic. More companies are offering to repair products to extend their lifetimes. That is quite helpful. We also see a lot of new business models evolving which replace ownership of things like bikes or cars or tools with products-as-a-service models. As these products are used much more by more people it not only requires less materials but also great economics.  What is happening now is that larger companies are much more interested in experimenting and becoming customers of circularity startups and scale-ups. Many large companies have been using offsetting to address emissions in their supply chains but now a lot of organizations realize that there is no Net Zero without a circular economy. This realization is gathering tremendous steam. In Europe, we have a Circular Economy Action Plan and California and New York are copying portions of that. These new regulations are starting to have an impact. That said older legislation needs to be revised because, for example, some countries prohibit the making of new products out of waste. Circularity startups and scale-ups need help to reach economies of scale because they are competing against established supply chains that operate like very efficient established machines.

Q: Isn’t it true that even if large companies are open to moving to circular business models, they will have to build collaborations with other companies and ensure that all partners in the supply chain comply, which can be quite challenging?

MLC: It is true that the switch to circular value chains can’t be done within four walls. We need to build new ecosystems, which will require cross industry collaborations and buy-in from all suppliers. The decisions that multinationals make have repercussions in places like Bangladesh, for example. I recently met with the Bangladesh ambassador to the Netherlands. What is happening there is that large corporations are passing these new requirements to their suppliers in the Global South yet at the same time they are expecting lower prices and if suppliers don’t comply, they are cut off. This feels very unfair. A better approach is to view it as a joint problem. It is important that multinationals factor in what suppliers need in terms of capacity building and technology.  It is also critical to find shared interests and a common goal rather than jumping straight into the conflict work. Collaboration will be key to get to good end results as innovation and circularity will – in the long run – be way less expensive.

Q: How is Circle Economy, the organization you lead now, trying to help?

MLC: We’re working on this in multiple ways. Due to the influence of leading European companies, lower-tier suppliers in lower-income countries need to integrate circular economy practices into their production processes. However, this poses technical and financial challenges. Circle Economy is addressing this by providing training and funding from the EU and Finland to micro-, small-, and medium-sized suppliers in Bangladesh (for textiles), Morocco (for plastic packaging), and Egypt (for electronics) through the SWITCH initiative, powered by UNIDO, Chatham House, and the European Investment Bank.

We’ve also developed a number of digital tools to support the circular transition. With Circularity Academy, our e-learning platform, organizations can train their employees, monitor the adoption of circular economy expertise and track their circular progress while growing engagement and awareness. This is now being applied in Bangladesh and Morocco with dedicated tracks to increase circular knowledge among manufacturers in the textile and plastics industry. We aim to reach 500 micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises before the end of 2025 as part of the SWITCH project. Our capabilities were bolstered through our recent acquisition of Sustainability Games, an organization dedicated to gamified sustainability learning.

In addition, to ensure that circularity is accessible for all, an open-access digital platform and a collaborative effort between Circle Economy, Metabolic, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and ICLEI, is offering content and free access to emissions, material use and jobs data for over 6,000 cities worldwide. With 22,000 users in the past year, city leaders can gain valuable insights into their specific contexts and explore 50+ circular solutions through our Circular City Actions Framework. We have now introduced a digital Circularity Gap Report landscape, enabling countries to access essential data and track their circularity progress through a paid subscription. We’re already partnering with four nations.

Finally, we have developed a ‘Training-of-Trainers’ model to upskill educators in vocational education and colleges, in addition to training small- and medium-sized enterprises on the circular economy. So far, we have worked with Oxfam Novib and UNESCO UNEVOC to deliver these trainings in Cambodia, Uganda, Somaliland, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa and Egypt, inspiring groups across these countries with knowledge and practical skills to develop circular businesses.

Q: What message do you want to convey when you speak at DLD Circular in Munich next week?

MLC:  Munich is in the middle of a circular transition. I want the audience to be aware of that and what role they can play in that transition so my talk will be in part a call for action. Secondly, I will outline how Circle Economy is working with a lot of individual companies and how we are now scaling up this effort globally. We are in a race against the climate change clock, and time is running out. This year alone, we’ve experienced record-breaking temperatures and weather events. If we are to meet our goals, those outlined in the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we have to act now.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.