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Circular Economy

Circular Economy

Since one of our values is “Circular”, we thought it a good idea to do an article on the wider subject of a circular economy. We will cover: why do we need it? What is it? What are the limitations and obstacles? And finally, how do we move towards it?

 

Why do we need it?

We are currently experiencing the impacts of climate change and it is undeniably linked to overconsumption. From fossil fuels to cash crops, in the guise of efficiency, some humans have over-used our resources. Overall, we are using up resources and polluting faster than nature can cope with. I am saying overall because this is not happening equally across the world, it has historically been the global north that has contributed to the environmental degradation we are currently experiencing. The pollution and damage to our environment are being done through the extraction of raw materials and then dumping them in a different form once we are done with them. We have separated ourselves from nature, and view nature as something that we can exploit for our short-term gratification. Forgetting that we are one with nature, nature is us and we are nature, and we must start honouring this.

We need to be more like earthworms, taking enough from the earth to exist in this world, their poop fertilises the earth and helps other beings grow and when they die, they too become part of the earth. Or in the example given in the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, in spring the leaves of the leak take energy from the bulb, making it thin and shrivelled up but soon the leaves start giving back to the bulb so that they can multiply, and the cycle can continue (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2020).

Have you ever thought about how other species adapt to the environment that they are in, whereas as humans we are often changing our habitat to benefit us and often taking from nature more than what we need? Yes squirrels sometimes stash away more nuts than they eventually eat but those nuts either turn into beautiful trees or they decompose and fertilise the earth which allows more nuts to grow; unlike the countless unused phones that are currently stashed away in people's junk draws which will never decompose, will outlive us all and aren’t contributing anything to our system apart from pollution. The worm, the leak and the squirrel are living in the world in a circular way, whereas humans for the most part are behaving in a linear way. In a nutshell, we need to shift to a circular model because the linear way is causing large scale environmental degradation which impacts human and non-human animals.

 

How we currently do things:

Linear Economy illustration - extract (drawing of a shovel) then an arrow pointing towards the next drawing which is of a hand holding a phone with the words "use" below, a final arrow pointing towards a drawing of a bin bag with the words "dispose" below

To understand the circular economy, we first have to look at how things are currently being done in our human society. We extract, make/use and discard in a linear model. With inputs at one end and outputs at the other end. 

Inputs

Inputs are the resources that we use such as fossil fuels, water, nutrients in soil and mining for precious metals.

Outputs

Outputs are the things that we release back into the environment after we have altered them, such as polluting gasses, agricultural run-off (pesticides and fertilisers), electronic waste, plastic waste and much more.

illustration with handwritten information - words "we need a circular economy" in a circle surrounding a person holding shopping bags with a section of writing either side. First one says "In Europe 90% of raw materials that are used in manufacturing end up as waste before the product leaves the factory". A little arrow from this information into their shopping bags and another arrow coming away pointing to " & in the first 6 months of the products existence, 80% get throw away"

(Source: Cambridge Judge Business School Circular Economy, 2021)

Why this is problematic and how can a circular economy be part of the solution:

The problem with the linear model is that we are behaving as if we had infinite resources and a magical wand to wish away our hazardous waste into a black hole. When in reality we only have one planet which is overbrimming with our waste (which not only has an environmental impact but also a social impact, see our article on Environmental Racism here) and a finite set of resources. The problem of overconsumption and pollution is not simple, instead, it can be classified as a wicked problem.

A wicked problem can be defined as a problem that is complex in how it weaves itself within social-environmental contexts (Duckett et al., 2016). This means that there isn’t one solution that will fix our overconsumption and pollution problems. Instead, a multitude of measures that are intertwined together like a tapestry is needed and a circular economy can be one of those threads. With a circular economy the objective is to close the loop by pulling both ends of the line of our current linear model (extract, make/use, discard) and to do that, the three principles that underpin circular economy are:

 

Illustration of a circle with circular economy handwritten around it. Next to it, the principles of CE are outlined: Design out waste and pollution, Keep products and materials in use, and Regenerate natural systems


(Image illustrated by Sara Botero, 2021)


Below is a very useful diagram from a Nature article that explains in a visual way how a circular economy would work like. We would need to do a lot less extracting of new resources because instead of them going through the make-use-discard model, through innovation they would instead be reused, repaired or remanufacture.

 

diagram of a visual representation of the circular economy. it is a circle with loops inside which feed back into society through different ways which get explained in the text.

(Image source: Stahel, 2016)

Benefits of a circular economy

 The Ellen Macarthur Foundationstates that the benefits of implementing a circular economy would be:

  • 48% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030
  • 700 million USD annual material cost savings in the fast-moving consumer goods industry

What can we do to shift towards a circular economy?

There are three parts to moving towards a circular economy. One part I like to think of as the roots of a tree and the other as the branches. The roots are what gives the tree their strong foundation, without them, the branches, blossom and fruits wouldn’t be possible. With strong roots the tree is able to grow and also be more resilient. The trunk is the principles that tie the roots and the branches together. Below I will outline some of the roots and branches that I have come across in my research and some examples of them.

Roots

A circular economy is not just about physical resources and waste; it is a completely different way of seeing our relationship with nature. The resources that Mother Nature gives us, are gifts and we must start viewing them as such. The roots are what create systemic change. What good is it if there are options such as returnable packaging, slower fashion and plenty of places for people to fix their belonging if people don’t actually want to do that? If they value something shiny and new which they can show off their friends more than the sustainable option? That is why the long-term work of shifting our values is so important. Things like implementing nature connection at school so that kids from an early age find the value of being outdoors. However, scientist have found that trees help each other out through their roots, and we must take note from this. Circular economy on its own won’t create systemic change, like I said before it is only a thread in a tapestry of other measures that also need to be happening so that people have the capacity to choose those more sustainable choices. Examples of other threads are fighting for climate justice, universal basic income, universal health care, degrowth, decolonisation, reparations, nature connection and the gift economy.

Trunk

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

Branches

  • Spaces in the community that facilitate repairing items instead of replacing them – Examples: repair cafes, bike cooperatives, Hackspace, time banks.

  • Buying less. Examples: swap shops, slower fashion, swapping high consumption activities with ones that are just as fun or more and have less of a negative impact or even better a positive one.

  • A move away from ownership to stewardship, so that if they need repairing then the manufactured does that and if you simply don’t need the product anymore then you stop leasing it. Example: leasing light, renting clothes, renting cars, headphones (Gerrald Street).

  • Reusing ‘waste’ from one industry for another. Examples: beer made from bread offcuts (i.e. Toast), Emperor’s Clothing.
  • Longer lasting products. Examples: phones designed so that they are easily repaired and upgraded such as Fairphone.
  • Products that need to be disposable are made from materials that don’t pollute. Examples: Splosh, Loop Packaging.

 

Obstacles, limitations & conclusion:

There are of course obstacles and limitations to implementing a circular economy. At the moment businesses measure their success in how much output they produce and how many sales they achieve, this was of thinking needs to change and companies need to see the value of moving towards a circular economy. One of the values for the economy is that moving to a circular economy would create more jobs. This is because to repair something (or retro fit), it requires fewer physical resources but more labour whereas to make something from new resources requires more resources but less labour.

In the grand scale we would have to more towards unitised components so that things are more easily fixed and at the end of their lifecycle resources can be extracted more easily in a standardised.

A limitation of the circular economy was outlines in some research which compiled 117 different definitions of it. Most of them the consensus was reduce reuse recycle but few outlined the need for systemic change (Kirchherr et al.,2017). Additionally, circular economy needs to be talked about in the general public and not just in academic circles.

We need to be careful that circular economy doesn’t become just about products and in a way a “business as usual” mentality because then the result might be that we get better at creating machines that extract precious metals from electronics but if social equity isn’t at the heart then there will be no systemic change and we will carry on seeing our planet being destroyed whilst the impact of over-consumption carries on negatively impacting people who have contributed very little towards it. We need systemic change, which is why circular economy cannot be just about stuff, it needs to be about living beings at the core of it.

We only have to observe nature to see circular models in play. Birds, trees and worms don’t have landfill, instead one individuals waste is another’s food. Essentially a circular economy is quite simple, it is about taking from mother earth in a respectful way and what we take we keep in use as long as possible and give back to the earth in a nourishing way instead of our current model of taking, making and polluting. However, humans are part of this so although it is simple in theory there are a lot of intersections that are at play that mean that it is not so simple. So a takeaway would be, starting from the roots: think about your own values and how you view your relationship with nature, and moving further up the tree some actions that you can take are talking to your friends and family about circular economy and asking brands what they are doing to move towards a circular economy and whether they are paying their workers a living wage and doing anti-racist work. Because if there is one thing that I want you to take away from this is that there is no one solution and we need that tapestry of measures to get systemic change.

 

Resources

(If you have any resources that you feel someone else might benefit from please pop them below in the comments)

The Circular Economy – Nature article by Walter R. Stahel 2016

https://www.nature.com/news/the-circular-economy-1.19594

If you have a business in Scotland, Zero Waste Scotland provides support in helping you shift to a circular approach to your business:

https://ceaccelerator.zerowastescotland.org.uk

It also has got a lot of quality information and real-life examples of circular economy businesses.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation website:

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy

And their podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-circular-economy-show/id1116732609

 

Open Access Papers:

Making Resilient Decisions for Sustainable Circularity of Fashion by Celinda Palm, Sarah E. Cornell & Tiina Häyhä 
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43615-021-00040-1

A Circular Economy Is About the Economy by Ken Webster
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43615-021-00034-z

 

References

Duckett, D., Feliciano, D., Martin-Ortega, J. and Munoz-Rojas, J. (2016). Tackling wicked environmental problems: The discourse and its influence on praxis in Scotland. Landscape and Urban Planning, 154, pp.44–56.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2018). What Is The Circular Economy?[online] Ellenmacarthurfoundation.org. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy [Accessed 1 May 2021].

Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2018). What is a Circular Economy?[online] Ellenmacarthurfoundation.org. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].

Genovese, A., Acquaye, A.A., Figueroa, A. and Koh, S.C.L. (2017). Sustainable supply chain management and the transition towards a circular economy: Evidence and some applications. Omega, 66, pp.344–357.

Kirchherr, J., Reike, D. and Hekkert, M. (2017). Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, [online] 127, pp.221–232. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344917302835.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2020). BRAIDING SWEETGRASS : indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants.S.L.: Penguin Books.

Stahel, W.R. (2016). The circular economy. Nature, [online] 531(7595), pp.435–438. Available at: https://www.nature.com/news/the-circular-economy-1.19594 [Accessed 30 Mar. 2021].

University of Cambridge. (n.d.). Circular Economy and Sustainability Strategies. [online] Available at: here [Accessed 23 Apr. 2021].

Zero Waste Scotland. (n.d.). Circular Economy Accelerator – Zero Waste Scotland. [online] Available at: https://ceaccelerator.zerowastescotland.org.uk [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].

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