What is this 'Circular Economy'?
I have decided to start a blog about sustainability and resource efficiency and the lifestyle choices that we face every day. And what would be a better way to start my blog than with my absolute facourite topic: Circular Economy.
When I have mentioned the topic to my friends and family, many have said that they have never heard of the concept before - yet it is the current sustainability craze. And it hopefully is here to stay.
On one of my very first lectures of my masters degree in the University of Strathclyde, one of the PhD students in our department and an Ellen MacArthur Foundation Fellow Jack Barrie came to give our small MSc class a lecture. It was on circular economy. I had heard the term before, but I did not have a clear idea of what it was. I did not know that the lecture was going to change my life. A little bit cheesy, I know.
I was interested in environmental sciences and sustainability long before I applied to study in the University of Glasgow and later continued my studies in the University of Strathclyde. I had often felt like environmental activism, although very noble and for a good cause, was perhaps not always the most effective way to make a change. Instead, change should be attempted from inside the system - but how?
Circular Economy is a concept that has been around for a few decades. The idea is based on the natural system on Earth, where energy and materials cycle within loops through the Earth system and waste basically does not exist. Currently our society is practising 'Linear Economy' or so called 'take-make-dispose' culture, where earth resources are extracted and made into a product, which is then used and thrown away after it is no longer wanted/usable and eventually it will end up on the top of the mountains of rubbish in our landfills. The world population is growing at an alarmingly fast pace. In the next couple of decades we are expected to run out of many earth resources, while we try to provide for this evergrowing population. We also have an urgent pressure to stop the climate change and reduce our carbon emissions in one way or another, as well as to tackle huge amounts of waste generated and problems like the plastic pollution in oceans.
Circular Economy aims to tackle these problems by creating products and materials, which are long-lasting as well as easily repairable, remanufacturable and recyclable. The environmentally best option would no doubt be to stop consuming full stop, but the Circular Economy concept realises that we need to also have a functioning economy. In the CE model, rather than selling as many products as possible, businesses are encouraged to move towards a service-based business model, where the ownership of a product, and therefore also ownership of the raw materials, are retained within the business and only rented out to customers. Imagine renting out all the white goods in your house: you would probably pay a monthly or annual fee, but this would also cover servicing and repairs to the machines. A service-based business model would also encourage manufacturers to put a lot more effort into the quality of the product - the better the fridge, the longer it will generate money to the business. As our society will be relying more and more on technology and automation, Circular Economy also aims to create jobs and further steady the economy.
Circular economy is based on circulating earth materials through different loops (see diagram above), and all of this should ideally be powered by renewable energy sources. Like mentioned before, one of the main aims is to bring long-lasting products back and to keep these in use as long as possible to maximise the value of the materials in them. What do the loops mean? I have attempted to explain them briefly below:
In order to maintain and prolong the life of the products that we use, they should be made easily repairable. Currently, repairing a product might not end up being much cheaper than buying a brand new one, which discourages consumers to try to get their items fixed. Also, many of us have lost or never acquired the skills required to repair things from socks to laptops, and this is something we need to work on by sharing knowledge and skills. There are some great organisations offering help in these fields: The Restart Project is a London-based organisation helping people to fix their electronic equipment and Love Your Clothes is a campaign by WRAP helping people to learn how to minimise textile waste for example by better maintaining and fixing their clothes.
'Sharing Economy' is another current buzzword. AirBnB is an example of a hugely succesful sharing-economy-based business idea. Many larger cities are also working on setting up tool libraries etc, where people can share their tools and similar assets that they rarely use. Many of us might only use a type of tool once in their lifetime, so why not borrow it from a tool library rather than buying one for yourself and leaving it unused for decades. The Edinburgh Tool Library is the UK's first tool library, so if you are based in Edinburgh and need a tool, why not have a look there?
We are all familiar with charity shops and other second-hand shops, as well as online platforms like eBay, where you can sell your unwanted items onwards. Unfortunately, in the UK at least there is still a bit of stigma around second-hand items, unless they are 'vintage'. In my home country Finland, flea markets are very popular, especially in summertime! I remember them being amazing places to go to with my mum or with my friends and finding lots of amazing treasures. In addition to donating or selling items, you could also swap them, perhaps with your friend or neighbour, or find out if your local community has a swapshop. Here in Edinburgh, SHRUB runs a permanent Swap Shop. More information here.
Refurbishing is a great way to prolong the life of products. Little changes and improvements can make an item look and function like new and retain the material in use. Through circular economy strategies manufacturers are encouraged to think about making remanufacturing of products easier.
Recycling is a great way to retain material within circulation and the ensure the reduction of raw materials needed for manufacturing. Refer to your local council website to find out what you can recycle. Here in Edinburgh, the list of recyclable items in kerbside collections was a lot longer than I thought!
One of the resons why I love the concept so much is the fact that Circular Economy offers endless amount of opportunities for sustainable innovation. Different businesses, organisations and academic institutions are putting a lot of effort into coming up with new ideas for circular materials and business models.
I actually ended up writing my dissertation on circular economy and it was really interesting to explore the challenges and possibilites that the concept offers. I will write a separate blog post about my dissertation in the future. Meanwhile, if you would like to read more about circular economy, I would sincerely recommend the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website and publications. You might also want to check out Circular Economy Club or perhaps WRAP - the Waste and Resources Action Programme.
Living in Scotland is quite exciting for a circular economy enthusiast, because the Scottish Government actually have published their Circular Economy Strategy for Scotland in 2016. You can read it here. You can also find more information about circular economy in Scotland on the Zero Waste Scotland website. This spring I have been volunteering with an Edinburgh-based cooperative SHRUB, which has just launched its Zero Waste Edinburgh programme. You can read more about it in my previous blog post.
Any thoughts or questions? Leave a comment below.