What do you do to your favorite shirt when its all worn down and frayed? What about your smartphone when its not working and no amount of repair can bring it back to life? How about the plastic bag that you used to bring your groceries home?
For most of you, the answer would be to throw it in the trash.
This is called the “take-make-dispose” economic model that is so pervasive the world over. As soon as a product is no longer useful, it is thrown away. In some countries, these waste materials are brought to incinerators or landfill. In others, especially those with no proper waste disposal system, these materials clog waterways and polluting the sea, affecting marine life. To compound the problem, this linear model depletes resources, making it unsustainable.
Instead of disposing materials, there is of course an alternative: recycling.
However, The Guardian reports that recycling requires energy intensive processes and leads to a downgrade of materials, and as such, offers little appeal.1
Not only that, recycling does not solve the issue of sustainability.
But what if there is a solution? One, that according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles."2
This is called the circular economy model.
The premise of this model is that a new way of thinking must be put in place in order to change the status quo and design and produce materials that can be re-made into new ones at the end of its product cycle.
Why is the circular economy model important?
The significance of the circular economy model cannot be overemphasized. GreenBiz estimates that by 2030, there will be about 9 billion people the world over whose "demand for products and services will be unparalleled." At the same time, the organization reports that World Bank data shows an increase in municipal solid waste "from 1.3 to 2.2 billion tons per year by 2025."3 As such, it is important to put a system immediately in place that will be able to address these issues.
The circular economy model seems to fit the bill in responding to the challenges. The Guardian reports that according to McKinsey and Company, analysis show that "estimates shifting towards circularity could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs within the next five years. Under the Waste & Resources Action Programme's Circular Economy 2020 Vision, the European Union (EU) could benefit from an improved trade balance of £90 billion and the creation of 160,000 jobs." This is indeed welcome news for the proponents of the revolutionary model.
Can the circular economy model work?
The circular economy model sounds very promising but it requires a radical change in mindsets and way of doing things. However, Forbes Magazine notes that "the Circular Economy finally looks like an idea whose time has come."4 For one, there is growing support from countries, organizations such as the European Union and World Economic Forum, international NGOs, businesses and individuals, including celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation5 has identified four building blocks that are essential for circular economy to work. These are:
1. Circular economy design
For the model to work, businesses and organizations must incorporate the circular design from product conceptualization to all areas, such as reuse and recycling.
2. New business models
A change in business models is required to conform systems and practices to the circular economy model, drive innovations and seize opportunities. Successful and profitable business models can also inspire other players.
3. Reverse Cycles
New skills, systems and processes are required for the "final return of materials to the soil or back into the industrial production system."
4. Enablers and favorable system conditions
The continued support of governments, policymakers, influencers and institutions are vital for the flourishing of the circular model.
Implementation and next steps
While the model is still continuously being developed, it is good to note that several big brands such as Nike, Phillips, Google, Unilever, among others have taken the lead in shifting to the circular model.
Nike has put the circular economy model into practice through its Flyknit technology that according to reports "reduces waste by about 60%, compared with cut-and-sew footwear."6 Philipps, in a collaboration with Turntoo, has created a "pay-per-lux" model which sells light as a service rather than as a product.7 Google, on the other hand, has integrated the circular economy principles into its operations by managing its hardware through its maintenance, refurbishment and other practices.8
These present positive precedents for other brands and products to follow suit, including ethical brands. With the current grim realities facing us, finding working models to adopt is necessary in creating a sustainable future.
- Perella, Maxine. "10 things you need to know about the circular economy." https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/10-things-need-to-know-circular-economy. ↩
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "Circular Economy." https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy." ↩
- Hepler, Lauren. (24 August 2015) "GreenBiz 101: Defining the circular economy." https://www.greenbiz.com/article/defining-circular-economy-beyond-recycling-material-reuse. ↩
- Lacy, Peter. (20 January 2015). "The Circular Economy. Great Idea, But Can It Work?" http://www.forbes.com/sites/valleyvoices/2015/01/20/the-circular-economy-great-idea-but-can-it-work/#a7111d3f6b58. ↩
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "Building Blocks of a Circular Economy." https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/building-blocks. ↩
- World Economic Forum. "How trainers are taking us a step closer to a circular economy." https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/trainers-circular-economy-nike/ ↩
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "Selling light as a service." https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/selling-light-as-a-service. ↩
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "Circular economy at work in Google data centers." https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/circular-economy-at-work-in-google-data-centers. ↩