How making our ‘economy’ circular can help save the planet while also creating genuine economic growth.
The word ‘economy’ can be defined as the
‘careful management of available resources’,
or the ‘sparing or careful use of something’.
Think about that.
People love ‘stuff.’ It’s the modern day, the western way, to buy and try then throw away and it’s not doing the planet much good. (Even if it does seem like it rhymes sometimes.) People’s unrelenting addiction to stuff, or rather, the way that stuff is being produced, used, and then disposed of, has led to gargantuan islands of plastic mess floating around in our oceans, great big shit heaps of rubbish building up in the ‘developing’ countries of the world, countless beautiful creatures choking to death and being found with plastic packed into their stomachs, and so much more disgustingly common scenery disfigurement and animal cruelty. They’ve even found plastic in some of the deepest parts of the ocean now, I mean for goodness gracious the world’s contagious sake, there’s disregarded stuff all over the place, and I haven’t even mentioned the monumental effect our appetite for buying stuff, using it for a short while, and then throwing it on the rubbish pile is having on the planet’s natural resources and the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. (No need to elaborate on that at this stage I’m sure, as if you’re a regular human being you already know, and if you’re a climate change denier I don’t actually speak your language anyway.)
So yes, we really do love our stuff, and a lot of the time, the slogans on the stuff might rhyme, but the fact is, when it comes to rhyming with nature, the ‘stuff’ just doesn’t. (All the rhyming in this paragraph was done partly to make a point, but mainly because, well, it just happened okay? Good day.) (Okay, the ‘Good day’ there was in no way an effort to say farewell, or goodbye, it was just for the sake of rhyming; I’m not done with the article yet, I’ve barely even started.) (I just farted.) Let’s move on.
You know what does rhyme with nature though? Circular Economy, that’s what. Okay so not in the literal ‘Peter Piper Picked a woolly sweater’ kind of way, but in an ‘ecological harmony’ kind of way. See the picture I painted so rhythmically above (I just have bloody rhyme on the mind today, apologies) of pollution and destruction and environmental disgust is a picture created by ‘the linear economy’, which is the model most of us use to produce and consume things right now. Under the linear economy model, sometimes referred to as the ‘take-make-waste model, a product is manufactured, used for a short time, and then disposed of, resulting in resource-guzzling greenhouse gas emitting damage during production, and physical waste after use. So beautiful, wonderful, preciously finite resources get plundered from the earth, turned into our little toys and trinkets in an environmentally destructive manner, and then, after a short time, get thrown on the shit-heap with the rest of the shit to clog up the lands and oceans for all eternity. Not the most nature-friendly system we have going on is it?
The linear economy model isn’t really an ‘economy’ at all, according to the definition of the word, so how do we build an economy that does fulfil that definition? Enter, the circular economy.
An Economy based on Nature
I insisted above that the circular economy rhymes with nature because it is inspired by nature. In nature nothing ever goes to waste. When a leaf falls from a tree, it breaks down and is used to fertilise the ground. A dead animal becomes food for another animal, which then dies and feeds another. There is no waste involved, and everything operates in a big replenishing cycle, or, you could even say, if you were feeling frisky, in a circle! That is basically how the circular economy works. It can be defined as, according to the world economic forum, ‘an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.’ Wooof, sounds exciting doesn’t it? It sounds flipping necessary if we want to even mildly continue our addiction to ‘stuff’ without turning the planet into an un-habitable boiling soup bowl of melted plastic and glow in the dark fertiliser mountains. If you’re optimistic, the circular economy sounds like the future. But how would it work?
In nature nothing ever goes to waste. When a leaf falls from a tree, it breaks down and is used to fertilise the ground. A dead animal becomes food for another animal, which then dies and feeds another. There is no waste involved, and everything operates in a big replenishing cycle, or, you could even say, if you were feeling frisky, in a circle! That is basically how the circular economy works.
How does The Circular Economy work?
As complicated as the diagram above may seem, the Circular Economy is actually rather simple. There are three main attributes you need to remember, and I have been kind enough to ramble on about them all below.
1. Products are designed for Zero Waste
Around 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage. The waste and pollution that results from our constant consumption of stuff isn’t just a freak accident, it’s a fault in the design! The circular economy aims to design out waste entirely by optimizing products for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. By making sure from the very start that every ounce of material in a product can be used again effectively when the product has been used, (You may be thinking ‘but isn’t that what recycling is for?’, but currently, taking plastic as an example, only 9% of what go’s into our products actually ends up being recycled, the rest ends up as waste) we can practically eliminate waste and ensure that once the raw materials have been taken from the earth to create some of our stuff, they never have to be taken again, and can be re-used in their entirety, again and again and again; just like nature. A beautiful continuous circle of planet saving design efficiency!
Around 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage.
2. ‘Consumers’ become ‘Users’
I’ve always really quite despised how people are so often referred to as ‘consumers’. I think it sounds really disgusting, and kind of proliferates the hopeless idea that people are born to just work, fuck, work, consume, work, work, consume, work, and die, but in the linear economy model people are just ‘consumers’. That’s really just how it works. In a circular model, people instead become ‘users’. In order to ensure that people actually return products to the manufacturers when they’re finished using them, the manufacturer retains ownership over the products and the raw materials composing them, ensuring that the raw materials retain their value, and people just lease the products from the manufacturers when they need them. Now this may sound quite odd and awkward at first because, well, isn’t it just nicer and simpler if we actually own our nice comfy thick woolly jumpers and flat screen TVs instead of having to go to the bother of leasing them? But if you think about it, when do you actually need your nice big woolly jumper? Are you planning on wearing it to the boom boom pow pow pool pool party your work is throwing in July? And then dragging it along for the mid-summer weekend blow out in Vegas the following weekend? Probably not. Wouldn’t it make more sense if you could bring your big thick 100% turnableintosomethingelseable jumper back to the manufacturer when the weather gets warmer in February, (or May if you’re from anywhere near the west of Ireland) and swap it for six pairs of flowery swimming shorts and some flip flops? Safe in the knowledge that the manufacturer can then turn 100% of your well worn, winter torn jumper into a completely new product without having to use any extra raw materials? Hmmmm, maybe this leasing products business isn’t such a bad idea after all! I’m sure we could get used to it.
3. Clean energy is used wherever possible
This one’s pretty simple; elimination of fossil fuels. The circular economy would operate entirely by using renewable energy sources. Although this may not be 100% possible today, the aim is to utilise as much clean energy as possible right now, and to push the transition toward 100% clean energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible. The future is clean and it turns in circles!
When you learn about how the circular economy works it just makes so much sense on so many levels. It’s better for the planet, better for people, and it’s even better financially! (Which is good, because it’s finance that really get’s the ball rolling on these things.) Here are some of the benefits of going circular.
What are the benefits of a Circular Economy?
Saving the planet
Well, that was an obvious one.
Boosting the economy!
Using resources more effectively could increase the size of the global economy by $2 trillion by 2050, so the benefits of going circular really are economic as well as environmental.
Contrary to the idea that to save the planet we’ll have to completely demolish the economy and go back to living in the woods and gathering nuts and berries (which I actually think would be tremendous fun), going circular can actually boost local communities and local jobs, both through its potential to create new markets and products and its emphasis on creating local material loops and shortening supply chains. The International Resource Panel, part of the UN’s Environment Programme, says that using resources more effectively could increase the size of the global economy by $2 trillion by 2050, so the benefits of going circular really are economic as well as environmental.
Good for business
In a circular economy model materials are completely re-used, which is much more cost efficient than the linear method of extracting or purchasing brand new materials for every product produced, so the circular method brings with it financial benefits for businesses and manufacturers.
Good for Humans
A cleaner planet to live on, an economy that runs smoothly for us and for nature as well, cost-benefits from increased manufacturing efficiency, and the potential for always being able to ‘lease’ whatever product you may want or need at a given point in time, and then trade it in for a different one when you’re done with it. There are so many benefits from going circular, and the possibilities are endless. (Haha, that’s funny, because circles don’t actually have an end, they just go around and around and around and around, so maybe I should say, the possibilities are infinite. Aaaaaaaah, yes, that’s better.)
In my mind, the circular economy is the future, but what really does make me optimistic is that this isn’t just some distant theoretical concept that’s never actually going to happen, it’s already happening, and seems to be gathering speed as we speak! Here are just a few examples of how the economy is starting to turn in circles today.
Real World Examples
Construction and demolition waste accounts for 25 to 30% of all waste created within European Union countries, which is quite a hefty chunk. Enter circularity. The Committee for European Construction Equipment (CECE), which represents the interests of over 1200 construction equipment manufacturers, is currently working together with other industry bodies in calling for a circular economy approach to construction. A total of eight construction industry organisations have signed a declaration entitled Construction in the circular economy: Towards circular materials, products and buildings. The organisations state that the industry needs an expert platform to develop a comprehensive strategy within the future construction policy initiative. This is an incredible example of the circular economy taking shape. This is not merely a greenwashing campaign or a corporate social responsibility stunt, it is an entire multi-nation spanning industry realising that the current way of doing things isn’t working and that a circular approach is the way forward. Circularity is going to happen, and is already happening, in one of the most raw materials heavy industries in the world.
Adidas has created a running shoe, christened the ‘Futurecraft.Loop’, that can be 100% recycled, over and over and over again. Unlike traditional shoes, which are constructed from diverse materials, the Futurecraft.Loop is made entirely from TPU, from the sole to the laces, and its various elements are fused together with heat, so there’s no glue or stitching required. So once the shoe is worn out, or the person ‘leasing’ the show fancies a newer, shinier, prettier shoe, it can be broken down into pellets, which will then be used to make a brand new Futurecraft.Loop sneaker. This can be done over and over and over again, meaning that no new raw materials will be needed to create shoes in the future. The materials that make up the shoe you buy in 2021 when the shoes are released (obviously you don’t have to buy a pair, but it might be a good idea!) can be used repeatedly, meaning that you can keep running and running and running for years and years to come in brand spanking new beautiful shoes, but the actual raw material in the shoes will stay the same. Now that’s pretty nifty. This may seem like a small development right now, I mean it’s just one shoe design, but don’t underestimate the influence it is likely to have on the industry. Adidas are a big big player, and if this proves to be a financial success, which I really think it will be, circularity is likely to proliferate through the fashion industry as if it’s sprinting at top speed while wearing lightweight sustainably produced running shoes! (That one was bad, I know.)
Spotify, AirBNB, Uber etc etc etc
Spotify, AirBNB, Uber, all these kinds of companies that we’re well accustomed to using on a regular basis are all a part of the circular economy as well. Spotify has turned what was an incredibly raw material heavy industry into an entirely digital one, where we lease our music for a monthly fee instead of owning it, and the music is produced and distributed in a waste free manner. AirBNB (when it is used properly and not taken advantage of by greedy flipheads with too much time, too much money, and too much property) allows people to make use of homes and spaces that would otherwise be sitting idle, a demand altering phenomenon which may have already contributed to Jeramiah knows how many extra hotels and guesthouses not being built. And Uber and Lyft and apps like that have the potential to allow for car sharing and a reduction in private car ownership. These are all examples of how the circular economy can exist and prosper in today’s world, and there are plenty more examples out there if you look for them!
Into the Future
So that’s it then, I’ve said my bit, talked my shit, now it’s time to split. (I’ve still got the rhyming bug, after writing an entire article, interesting, it’s like I started with rhyming, wrote all the paragraphs in between, and now I’ve managed to come: full circle!) Goodness, I’ll stop now. Do spread the word though, the circular economy is the future.
As Buzz Lightyear would say if he was designed to be 100% recyclable, manufactured and distributed using only clean energy, and leased by his lucky owner for a short time before being traded in for the Spanish speaking version in a manner that requires no extra raw materials to be harvested;
to circularity, and beyond!
And if you’ve managed to make it this far, for one, I’m absolutely astonished, and for two, fair flooping play to you! As a reward, here’s a tremendously concise video that pretty much sums up everything it just took me 2500+ words to explain. I could have just put the video at the start of course, and saved you the bother, but where’s the hilarity in that? Enjoy, and Bon Voy.
About the Author
Adam Millett is a freelance writer, blogger, and published poet with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help sustainable businesses tell the world their stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.
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