Products of all types go through life cycles and in our increasingly throwaway culture, those life cycles are becoming shorter and more destructive. Once products are manufactured and sold it’s often not long before it ends up in landfill. Despite numerous campaigns to break this cycle, this is the production model that we now consider normal and as consumption increases and companies churn out new products and models at an ever increasing pace, it’s the environment that takes the toll.
Of course, the model isn’t sustainable. Pollution is becoming more rampant, raw materials are being depleted, and global warming and environmental breakdown mean the earth is already struggling to feed and water the 7 billion people that live on it, let along supply them all with iPhones and iPads.
An alternative model is a circular economy, where the product journey becomes cyclical rather than linear. Waste is repurposed and fed back into the system so that instead of looking for new materials, manufacturers can work with what’s already been manufactured. Products are also kept in use for as long as possible. In a nutshell, this type of economy aims to minimise waste and maximise the value of resources.
A Closed Loop System
The concept of the closed loop or cycle is essential to a circular economy. This is based on how nature functions—for example, plants take up nitrogen from the soil but then return this upon decomposing, and water fulfils different purposes in the water cycle. All end products are converted into resources.
For a circular economy, this means that the same material can be used for multiple times without lowering in value. A distinction is made between the biological and technological components of a product, with biological components being returned to the environment and technological components, such as chips and engines, reused.
Practically speaking, though, it’s not possible to have a 100% closed loop. Repurposing would require labour and money, and after several uses, the quality of the material would degrade, causing a loss of value. However, making the shift to a more circular economy would still preserve materials for far longer than the current model, bringing numerous benefits and alleviating the strain we’re already putting on the earth’s dwindling resources and overflowing landfills.
The environmental benefits of a circular economy are the most obvious and immediate payoff. They provide a steady supply of raw materials for necessities, and when we do procure new materials, it’ll be done sustainably, with minimal harm to the environment and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Both consumers and businesses also have much to gain. Businesses can enjoy lower production prices since it’s much more cost-effective to reuse. It’s estimated that businesses in the UK can create as much as £29 billion additional GDP if they followed circular economy solutions.
For consumers, lower production costs translate to cheaper prices. In addition, according to this study by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, jobs will open up to handle the need for high-quality recycling and repair, and the logistics sector will expand to collect and return more products than ever. More businesses will also be put up to provide innovations well-suited for this new kind of economy.
How to Implement
Switching to a circular economy calls for a full-blown mindset shift that requires the participation of government, educational institutions, and companies all over. Here are some concrete practices that individuals and organisations can implement:
EU research says that around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is already determined by the end of the design stage, so a great deal of thought must be put into product design and manufacturing. Toxic chemicals should not be part of the manufacturing process, and materials should be conserved without compromising functionality. The entire lifecycle of the product should be taken into account so that aside from being built to last, products will be easy to reuse upon their end of life and even waste and byproducts can be repurposed.
The value of products must be maximised before they’re thrown away. When a product is no longer working, it can be repaired for extended use, adapted for a different function, or broken down into components that can be recycled, such as waste being turned into energy. There should be accessible resources for this, and consumers must be informed about how to maximise a product, from taking care of it to knowing their options for when it’s no longer usable. For example, plastic bottles and old mobile phones can be easily recycled.
Goods to Services
Instead of selling products, we can go a long way towards reducing waste by setting up a rental system. In this model, consumers become users who give a product back to other users. One way to do this is to establish a platform where people can exchange and borrow products so that the same product can be useful for multiple people. Another is to involve businesses by allowing users to rent or lease products then return these to the company which extracts the valid parts for remanufacturing.
Even though it may seem like a radically new system compared to what we’re doing now, many are already jumping on board, and there are countless real-life cases to draw from:
Kalundborg Symbiosis, Denmark
In Kalundborg, Denmark, industrial companies buy and sell resources and waste products from each other. Amazingly, this was started more than 40 years ago, and the companies are from different sectors, with both smaller businesses and international corporations well-represented.
Ycloset is a startup from China that aims to address the country’s demands for fast fashion in an unconventional way. Although there’s the option to buy clothes, most users pay a subscription fee to rent a certain number of clothes per month from Ycloset. The clothes in the catalogue, which are meant for casual wear, can last for as much as 40 people.
Gatwick Airport, UK
The Gatwick Airport is the UK’s second largest airport, and it was impressively the first to receive a “Zero Waste to Landfill” accreditation from Carbon Trust. They’ve built an on-site plant that harnesses energy from aircraft cabin waste, set up empty coffee cups and plastic bottles for recycling, and put up 100% energy-efficient LED lights on the runway, amongst other measures.
Sustainability is a Necessity, not a Lifestyle Choice
In general, the UK is pushing towards increased sustainability and a more circular economy but it has a long way to go. WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) is one governmental programme that helps individuals and organisations use resources efficiently, with initiatives such as working with local authorities to engage communities with recycling and providing information about handling food waste. Other efforts include the government’s Resource and Waste Strategy and the 25 Year Environmental Plan.
Environmental damage is directly linked to industrialisation and consumption so this isn’t a PR exercise for big business or a lifestyle choice for indulgent middle-class consumers. This needs to happen now. A large number of countries and international groups are already taking steps towards it and the circular economy model gets closer but we still have a long way to go.