Squaring the circle

9 minute read

The ninth article of Earth Matters explores the fundamental components of the Circular Economy, to illustrate and understand how the model as a whole – which is complex and comprehensive – might one day (hopefully!) come together. The switch from linear to looped hinges on a significant shift in how we generate and reuse waste. There should be no loss of quality when recycling, and each cycle needs to be small and slow to reduce or eliminate any loss of material. And closing the circle cannot happen without innovation, as we need to rethink and redesign systems and products from the ground up.

* * *

No one really knows when or where the idea of the Circular Economy came about. Its origins can’t be traced back to a single date or author and it seems to be born from a mix of different schools of thought beginning in the 1970s.[1] In more recent years, the concept has attracted the attention of major global companies and policymakers, including the World Economic Forum[2] and the European Commission.[3] So, as it gains traction, academic researchers have tried to make better sense of the myriad of interpretations: from the Blue Economy[4] to Biomimicry[5] to the Performance Economy, and – arguably the most well-known – the Cradle to Cradle theory publicised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.[6]

Despite differences in theories, there are connecting threads – fundamental components that brands can implement, develop further and hopefully combine in order to make the Circular Economy successful.

Direct to disaster?

According to the National Geographic, “approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide now belong to the ‘consumer class’ –the group of people characterised by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.”[7]

As this consumer class grows, the strain on our limited resources increases, and the damage to the planet becomes irreversible.

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”

Sir David Attenborough

Therefore, there is a clear tension between the progress being made in social sustainability, improving living standards and aspirations, versus the long-term balance and survival of Mother Earth and the resources she provides. Especially if we continue to rely on the (largely unchanged) linear production and consumption model that has been in place since the Industrial Revolution.

Or a time for revolution?

The Circular Economy has been billed by many as a much-needed paradigm shift to resolve this tension. This scenario sees us moving away from a linear take-make-waste approach, replacing it with a looped system of reuse, recycle, remanufacture, repair, recover, reduce and rethink. In other words it’s a complete system redesign.

“The Circular Economy is a bigger idea that takes the entire system into mind. That means rethinking how products are conceived at the start, minimising unnecessary use of resources, designing items to be used as long as possible, and planning to funnel material back into the economy afterward.”

Dame Ellen MacArthur

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular model creates new opportunities for economic growth, reduces waste, drives greater resource productivity, delivers a more competitive economy, positions markets to better address emerging resource scarcity issues, and helps to reduce the environmental impacts of production and consumption.[8]

It seems like the perfect solution, but it doesn’t come without a number of challenges. Indeed, some academics even argue that it is just a trend, driven by industry and policy rather than science and research – an idealistic theory that places too much focus on the profit and planet elements of sustainability, and forgoes the social aspects.[9]

However, there is evidence of brands big and small, established and new, demonstrating that a Circular Economy is possible. For example, British Sugar has shown that gradual, considered step changes and system rethinks can have an enormous positive impact. Their factory goes well beyond sugar production, reusing, reprocessing and rethinking to obtain twelve different products that close the loop.

To achieve this, every stage of the production process has been evaluated and rethought. The system is summarised in the diagram above, and includes collecting and selling the waste soil that is cleaned off the sugar beets as topsoil; commercialising LimeX (a by-product of the refining process) so that farmers can use it to restore soil pH; redirecting CO2 emissions to help grow medical grade Cannabis (a recent, on-trend shift from growing tomatoes). In the end, it all adds up – for the planet, for people and for the company’s bottom line.

 

Upcycle not recycle 

One of the main obstacles to reimagining waste in the Circular Economy is that many materials and products lose quality each time they’re put through the recycling loop. This leads to virgin materials being added to the mix to compensate, or materials simply becoming unusable.

Therefore, for a truly Circular Economy to be successful, with each loop the quality of the next product needs to be the same or improved. And brands can be infinitely inventive about the waste products they choose to upcycle.

Amazing air

As covered in Map: Drink Up, Air Co captures excess carbon dioxide from the air and upcycles it into vodka. Each bottle soaks up as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as eight fully grown trees and has only two ingredients, CO2 and water. A truly toast-worthy upgrade!

Getting shirty

Archivist was created when the founders sourced 200kg of bed linen from one of London’s luxury hotels. Creatives and garment technicians upcycled the linen into luxury cotton shirts, stitched to withstand years of wear. Any defects or damage can be sent back for repair.

Archivist Studio

Forever fresh

UK personal care brand Wild have launched the world’s first plastic-free deodorant. The refillable packs are designed to last for years and made from aluminium, which is indefinitely recyclable without loss of quality. Refills are made from rapidly renewable bamboo pulp.

Wild

 

Keep it local

Another key component to creating a successful Circular Economy is keeping things geographically local. This makes sourcing of materials, recycling, and use and redistribution of products and resources more efficient – not only in terms of logistics but also by minimising loss of material.

If the loops are kept small and localised, it is more difficult for valuable resources to get lost and meet undesirable ends in landfill. Or worse, nature.This approach can be especially challenging for multinational organisations, as it requires a shift to a “think global, act local” mindset with respect to material resources. But that doesn’t make it impossible…

Space hippie

To create the Space Hippie trainers, Nike were inspired by NASA’s method of collecting, storing and processing materials in Space. The shoes are made using waste that is close to hand at production facilities: the sole is made from factory floor waste, and the upper is made from granules of old shredded shoes.

Nike Space Hippie

Conscious community

Demonstrating the importance of disseminating information about local loops, Use Less London was born out of a frustration with the amount of “useless packaging” that products are often supplied in, and the lack of knowledge on eco-alternatives. The online resource helps users share and find zero waste stores.

Use Less London

Shot to scrub

UpCircle Beauty has a range of cosmetics and beauty products that utilise spent coffee grounds and chai spices collected from nearby London coffee shops. The grounds make an excellent alternative exfoliator to plastic micro-beads, and the caffeine also helps to naturally brighten the skin and reduce puffiness.

UpCircle Beauty

Slow it down

The third spoke on the Circular Economy wheel of success is slowing down the cycle. The longer a product and its materials stay in use (supported by rental, repair and reuse habits from the consumer), the more bang for our buck we’re getting from the energy spent making the item in the first place.

In addition to these energy value gains, the longer something stays in use, the higher its perceived value. This means an item is more likely to be repaired or remade, which helps to make sure it doesn’t drop out of the loop before its time.

(Fast) food for thought

Zero is a fast-food packaging concept, developed by UK design agency PriestmanGoode, that is reusable, long-lasting and made from sustainable materials. The bento-style, stackable containers are made from discarded cocoa bean shells, and the delivery bag uses mycelium, pineapple leather and plant-based neoprene. The design is modern and desirable, and items can be returned, washed and reused as part of an incentive-based system.

Zero by PriestmanGoode

 

Please stay

The Jää (“please stay” in Finnish) is a durable armchair manufactured from post-consumer recycled plastic (PE and PP). The idea is to cleverly slow down the waste generation cycle and add long-term value by transforming unwanted materials from being short-lived, single-use items into statement furniture pieces. The multifunctional, adaptable seats are conceived for long-term use in public spaces like museums and art galleries.

Jää Armchair

Bubbles and giggles

US kids’ skincare brand Bubbsi is made to bring happiness back to both bath time and the planet. Underwhelmed by and unhappy with the “serious” design and unsustainable packaging of children’s personal care products, the founder decided to create a range of covetable, reusable, soft silicone bottles that double as toy animals. Each pack can be refilled via value bulk pouches, keeping them out of landfill and in the home for longer.

 

Total rethink

The final ingredient in the recipe for a successful Circular Economy is the spirit, boldness and determination required to radically rethink how we make and use products and services. Transitioning from a linear to a circular lifecycle requires innovative rethinking and a complete redesign of systems and processes. It starts with assessing and then fundamentally changing the way that companies and consumers interact with products, materials and resources throughout their entire product lifecycle.

Subscription-based systems can be an effective way for brands to work towards this goal with consumers, entering a long term commitment to create and maintain sustainable, convenient and desirable loops.

Road to success

Tyre manufacturer Bridgestone has launched Mobox, a monthly subscription plan for tyres. Switching to a subscription service ensures that, at end of life, tyres are kept in the loop for repair and recycle, with no loss of quality and material. It also ensures that damaged and worn tyres are replaced promptly, helping to keep the roads safer.

 

Lightbulb moment

Driven by both environmental and market influences, electronics giant Philips is rethinking its product offering and going circular. Based on the insight that “consumers are more driven by access and performance rather than ownership” Philips is moving towards offering a subscription-based service on everything from toothbrushes to lightbulbs.

Stylish subscription

Loop by Terracycle is a subscription system that offers brand-specific reusable packs in aluminium, glass and recycled plastic. Switching to a milkman-style service – where empties are collected for cleaning, refill and reuse – ensures that packs stay in service longer and are recycled at end of life. All without losing brand visibility.

 

In many ways, the Circular Economy is at the heart of most of the thinking around sustainability. It combines and connects a lot of the individual themes and approaches we covered in previous issues of Earth Matters, including Winning with Waste, Long Live the Product and Single Use Backlash.

Indeed, it is its scale and complexity that make the model promising and challenging in equal measure. To work, it requires determination, coherence and a deep-rooted, unwavering desire to change. But the fact that brands and consumers are already making progress on the individual “components” means we have all the learnings and tools in place to close the loop.

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