In a living world there is no land flow, instead materials flow. One specie’s waste is another specie’s food, energy is provided by the sun, things grow and die and nutrients return to the soil safely.
From a Linear Economy
We live in a take, use and waste society. As humans, we adopt a linear approach i.e. we take, make and dispose. For instance, when a new phone comes out, we ditch the old one. If our coffee machine breaks down, we buy a new one. Each time we do this, we are eating up the finite supply of resources and producing toxic wastes.
In essence, from a linear economy standpoint, every process has clearly-defined beginnings and endings. The concept is built on a straight line from resource extraction to waste, with an inherent assumption of limitless growth i.e. a lack of concern for any possible limits. And they exclude many true costs and label them as “externalities.”
So the obvious question is: are we today throwing away the resources of tomorrow?
Circular Economy Dilemma
From the perspective of the consumer-driven linear model to which we all are accustomed to, the idea of a circular economy may be a bit obtuse. If we accept that a living world cyclical model works, can we change our way of thinking so we too can operate as a circular economy? A common question that comes to mind is what does the circular economy really mean, anyway? After all, we recycle. Don’t we? Isn’t that circular enough? And more importantly, does the circular economy start where it ends or end where it starts? How does all this even make any sense?
Circular Economy as an Economic Strategy
A circular economy is indeed an economic system where products and services are traded in closed loops or ‘cycles’.
A circular economy is regenerative by design, with the aim to retain as much value as possible of products, parts and materials.
It aims to create a system that allows for longevity, optimal reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling products and materials. Circular economy focuses on value retention. The decision making processes include both short- and long-term consequences of a decision, considering the impact of the complete value chain, and aiming for the creation of a more resilient system which is effective at every scale.
In essence, circular economy revolves around the concept of closing the loop.
Circular Economy Cycles
Circular economy aims to design out waste i.e. waste does not exist. The residual streams of products are separated in a biological and technical cycle. Let’s start with a biological cycle. How can our waste build capital rather than reduce it?
By rethinking and redesigning products and components and the packaging they come in, we can create safe and compostable materials that help grow more stuff i.e. no resources to be lost in the making of materials.
This is completely possible for bio degradable products. But what about products, materials and parts that can’t biodegrade like mobile phones, washing machines, coffee machines? We all know they don’t biodegrade. Circular economy caters for these non-biodegradable products as well. This is where the technical cycle kicks in. A way to cycle valuable metals, polymers and alloys to maintain their quality and continue to be useful beyond the shelf life of individual products i.e. goods of today become resources of tomorrow.
It makes commercial sense. Instead of the throw-away-and-waste culture we are used to, we adopt a return-and-renew one, where products and components are designed to be disassembled and regenerated. One possible way to do this can be to rethink ownership. What if we never actually own our technologies, we simply license them from the manufacturers. One such example is Philips. Philips Lighting’s has shifted from selling light bulbs to selling lighting as a service. By doing so, customers save money as they pay only for the light they use, while saving them from the hassle of burnt-out bulb replacement and disposal. Most importantly, Philips retains control of its products, thus making it easier to refurbish valuable materials, and maintaining an ongoing customer relationship.
Now let’s put these two cycles together. Imagine if we could design products that could come back to its makers (like Philips). The technical materials would be reused in developing new products, withtheir biological parts increasing agricultural value. Now imagine these products are made and transported using renewable energy! Wouldn’t that be simply amazing?! Here we have a model that builds prosperity in the long-term and the good news is, there are companies out there beginning to adopt this way of working.
In essence, circular economy is not about one manufacturer changing one product. It is about all the interconnecting companies that form an economy and infrastructure coming together.
Imagine a world where nothing is lost and everything is shared—toxic substances are eliminated and there is no waste, because all residual streams are valuable as resources; where each consumer plays a role in protecting the environment and drastically reduces his or her carbon footprint i.e. a win- win for everyone!