Going around in circles for the greater good
What is Circular Economy?
Circular economy is, simply put, a closed-loop, regenerative model where products are made, used, recycled and repurposed continuously. It includes all aspects of design, resources, manufacturing process, equipment, and waste/byproduct management. This model is vastly different than the current linear trend of manufacturing cheap and fast products with a take-make-dispose attitude. Very soon, Circular Economy is not going to be a 'choice', but a 'necessity', as the size of our landfills grow and we pollute our oceans with discarded electronics, plastics, and all sorts of trash that is not designed to be re-purposed.
Industrial revolution, with the success of the first steam engine, brought along unfathomable change in the manufacturing process. Mass production became the norm, without any regard for workers, pollution and longevity of the product. This, along with the use-and-dispose attitude, has caused irreversible damage to the environment. People have started to take action against this attitude by creating different sustainability models. Circular Economy is a concept that brings together and works with multiple schools of thought such as Functional Service economy, Cradle to cradle design and Biomimicry amongst others.
The circular economy concept is built on three principles (Read more from the MacArthur Foundation) for both technical and biological cycles:
- Better design (Design out waste and pollution)
- Cycle of reusing (Keeping products and material in a loop)
- Enable conditions to enhance natural resources (Regenerate natural systems)
Here's a genius diagram that explains the difference between Circular and Linear Economy:
And here's a detailed version from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
How does one plan and design for the circular economy?
Unless implemented by the government and actively pursued by cities, followed by a commitment by enterprises and consumers, a Circular Economy would just not be successful. The benefits can only be reaped if entire industry sectors apply the principles and help each other, transcending national boundaries. Finland was the first country to publish a roadmap towards this goal in 2016. As of now, Finland has successfully integrated circular economy in all levels of education.
Designers and manufacturers can make this model successful if they
Think of the quality/longevity of the product
Select sustainable material and standardize the components so it is easier to swap out one component instead of making the entire product unusable
Design for easy end-of-life sorting, i.e. making sure that at the end of a product's life, both the technical and biological material can be easily repurposed or can naturally degenerate into the natural world
Manufacture with efficiency and economy in mind and also address by-product waste
Is Circular Economy costlier than Linear Economy?
In 2012, MacArthur Foundation did multiple studies and published a wealth of information highlights the viability of Circular Economy. One such study tried to understand the economic and business opportunities for changing directions towards a circular model from a linear model. The study found that in the EU manufacturing sector, if accepted on a larger scale, it could realize net material cost savings worth $630 billion annually towards 2025 by economizing and redistribution of material for product development, remanufacturing and refurbishment.
The study also highlights:
Economic growth due to lower production costs trough more productive utilization of inputs
Material cost savings in billions of dollars based on product-level modelling for medium-lived products (cell phones, washing machines) and fast moving products (laundry detergent, household cleaning products)Job creation through increased innovation and entrepreneurship.
Innovation and a revitalized way of thinking will lead to improved labor, efficiency, and more profit opportunities
More environmental benefits such as lower carbon emissions, reduction of primary material consumption (oil, minerals, agricultural water use, electricity, etc.), decrease land degeneration and improve quality of water
Ultimately, how can we, as consumers, do our part?
Change our mindset to view waste as a design flaw
Buy upcycled, recycled products that minimize waste and can be upcycled and recycled again
Look for products that are good quality with repairable and replaceable parts
Look for ways to minimize our biological waste
Rent or borrow instead of buying if you don't use something often
Stay informed, and inform others
Implement energy saving practices- energy efficient appliances, buy back programs, solar panels, public transportation, and much more
And lastly, what do we gain from it? All of the above, plus health, wealth, which leads to happiness!