Cofounders Christian Schiller and Volkan Bilici have a vision to unleash the full potential of the circular economy. As digital catalysts they’ll reduce industrial carbon footprints and turn your plastic into new gold.
Strewn along the coasts of a Hanseatic legacy stand petroleum refineries and power stations. In Hamburg, shipping containers stack up like skyscrapers and beyond, industrial chemical plants scatter into a forest of wind turbines that form a provocative jungle. In the periphery, plastic bottles bounce, perching like a flock of seagulls. The waves of synthetic materials are part of our evolutionary force, with notorious plastics interfering with our development. They have ultimately altered our biosphere because they have been forgotten among the waves and in the wild.
Inspired by his hero Alexander von Humboldt, Christian Schiller set sail to South America in 2018, but found himself in an ocean of everything but open water. “I travelled from Colombia to Panama and on the second day, I was stuck in a carpet of trash, algae, and mostly plastic in the open ocean. Immediately, I realized the gravity of the problem.” For the former Head of BizDev of Germany’s BlaBlaCar, it was the impetus to start Cirplus and solve the plastic crisis.
How did you meet your co-founder?
Christian: I was in Entrepreneur First (EF) at Factory Berlin Görlitzer Park, a company builder and incubator program. You can come with or without a project and although there was an idea for Cirplus, it needed more development. I met Volkan and it became clear to us that the industry lacked communication, touchpoints, and had deep fragmentation. It presented a great case for a new platform.
Volkan: Yeah, a strong feature of EF includes matchmaking for cofounders. Finding the right partner in business is like finding love in the dating world. If it doesn’t work for a week, then you should break up and find another cofounder.
What was it like building your company inside an incubator program?
Volkan: It was a very intense moment and very exhaustive. My emotions were a roller coaster. When you match for the first time, you think everything’s gonna be great. You hang out all the time and think together. But, after a few days, you feel like sh*t, because you clash, nothing is happening, or the idea isn’t strong. It’s all a roller coaster.
Christian: Across all of the cohorts they estimate their average to be 2.4 changes until you find the right match. I saw the program like a dreaded school exam you never felt prepared for. Every single Friday we always had to push and to pitch in front of everyone no matter how much shit we’ve done or not. They get to the grit, check-in constantly, ensure focus on the main problem, and teamwork. Successful companies need to refine their ideas all the time.
Volkan: I learned to overcome insecurities. I was hustling and doing many things beyond my role as a developer.
What is your global vision?
Volkan: To be the first thing people think of when it comes to sustainability and recycled plastics.
Christian: To close the plastic loop and become the Amazon for the recycled plastics market. The problem with plastic isn’t plastic itself, rather the system surrounding it. 99% of all metals are easily recycled because it’s valued, but plastic is different. It’s actually cheaper to buy new plastic than recycle old plastic. It seems counterintuitive, but collecting, sorting, washing, and then re-granulating plastic takes resources. Plastic is more expensive to repurpose and has a lower quality, so most companies stay more cost effective. As a result, plastic that could be recycled ends up getting burnt, dumped, or exploited. Last October, some researchers discovered that micro plastic is entering our digestion system.
Can you describe the effects of the cycle?
Christian: There are two main positives: helping with the climate effect and no longer polluting the environment. Replacing a ton of virgin plastic with a ton of recycled plastic saves 80-85% of CO2 emissions in comparison to turning a petroleum-based plastic. Every year 400 million tons of plastic are produced. Second, every year up to 12 million tons of plastic finds itself in the ocean. The WWF estimates one truck load of trash enters the ocean every minute. Plastic consumption is highly correlated to the increasing demand for consumer products. The steep curve isn’t changing.
What have you learned so far?
Volkan: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is how to be resilient, especially after the EF program. We had a moment and decided to take a different approach to our final investor meeting and did a short pitch.
Christian: Our attitude changed the dynamic – the conversation flipped and they ended up pitching to us about why it made sense for us to accept their funding. It was a happy investment accident and it’s been moving forward. But yeah, I agree that resilience and believing in your idea is the most important lesson. There’s going to be pushback from a lot of people, but you just gotta keep hitting it hard. Almost a year into the project, we are part of the Climate KIC program and are in good shape. This is something the industry needs and people are copying us. It’s a strong signal for healthy market growth.
Why hasn’t this been developed before?
Christian: The single most important reason why it has never been truly developed is regulation. In the past, it was simply too expensive to recycle plastic and priced too high for other players to purchase. Plastic itself is very cheap.
We’ve got companies that span 16 countries on our current pilot platform, which is “wow.” It makes sense that anybody that sells products in Germany and Europe is affected by the new regulation and everyone has to readjust their supply chains.
Just last year, the Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Year estimated that 90.5% of plastic waste ever made has never been recycled. Of this about 80% has found its way into landfills or become litter. Cirplus’ initiative is not only addressing supply chain demand and market needs, but touches on so many other issues related to climate change and public health.
On a basic level, societies need to learn how to integrate consumer waste better and how to make streams of waste cleaner, so that recycling becomes easier and cheaper. As emerging economies emerge and countries change regulations, or ban sending trash to their lands, more opportunities to use, buy, and sell recycle plastic will appear. The current state of our planet and the inclusion of recycling urge a redefinition of plastic’s true value and ignites a cycle of sustainability. Cirplus has built up a good karma, being the first to splash a global wave of sustainable and green startups to give industrial plastics another life. We can only wonder what reincarnations will come next.