We are at a critical crossroads of human history. Our increasingly industrialized world that has been heavily reliant upon the continual extraction of natural resources and the use of chemicals to meet our needs is now faced with critical natural resource limitations and depletion, and the destruction of the ecosystems upon which life depends.
Much of what has been driving this destruction of the environment has been a global industrial system that is largely based upon the assumption that there will always be an infinite amount of natural resources despite the finite planet.
The design of products in the traditional economy simply fails to take into account “externalities” such as environmental destruction or the negative impacts of industrial production on individual people or communities. This is especially true in developing nations where there are very few protections in place to protect human health and the environment.
In our quest for infinite growth and development, we have forgotten our true dependence upon the ecosystems that support life on Earth and on our interconnections with the rest of humanity.
With the realization that such an industrial and consumptive model is unsustainable, there has been a great deal of emphasis in recent years upon increasing efficiencies (e.g. implementing water conservation measures and energy efficiency to buildings), pollution regulations, waste reduction and recycling.
While all of these things are certainly beneficial and do indeed help to reduce our ecological footprint, we still end up with a great deal of waste and industrial and toxic pollution.
We also spend a lot of our energy, time, and money, “fighting the Environmental Evildoers” to keep them in line and trying to educate the public to do the right thing and to recycle, save, and to reduce this or that. And yet, we still end up with environmental destruction and some people that just don’t care to do the right thing for the environment and humanity.
But what if we shifted our consumption and industry from something that is extractive and wasteful to something that is regenerative? What if learning from and working with nature to make things were not just the right things to do, but what the market actually expected and demanded?
That is precisely what circular economy aims to do.
What is the circular economy?
Going in circles is generally considered counterproductive. But this is certainly not how proponents of the circular economy model see this. The premise of the circular economy model relies on the principle that the more resources can stay within the economic cycle, the better is it for society and the environment as a whole.
Typically, natural resources are extracted from our environment to make goods; these goods are then consumed and at the end of their lifecycle, they become waste. This is what is known as the linear economic model based on a “take, make, throw away” mentality which leads to the inefficient use and depletion of our resources.
In contrast, the circular economy seeks to design waste out of our economy by reducing, repairing, reusing and recycling product waste. In fact, it propagates that we should seek to see waste as a secondary resource.
To put these potential gains in numbers, the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company estimate that the circular economy represents a net materials cost savings opportunity between $380 and $630 billion for the EU each year .
What are the three key tenets of the circular economy?
Better product design
In most cases, our products are designed without any consideration for how they can be treated when they reach the end of their lifecycle or whether they can be repaired or reused. This means that by design our products tend to contribute to the generation of waste – on many occasions packaging illustrates this point in a very poignant way.
The circular economy wants to ensure that waste considerations are an integral part of the design of any product which means focusing on selecting the right materials as well as ensuring that the way the product is built up maximizes the opportunities for reusing it, repairing it or recycling it .
To illustrate this concept, it is interesting to review the genesis of the “Fairphone”, a mobile phone that embodies the principles of the circular economy and created with fair supply chains in mind .
The Fairphone is manufactured in a way that maximizes the opportunities for repair – and often the user can repair it themselves! For example, the Fairphone makes it easy to replace a number of its features such as the camera or the speakers as well as most of the buttons for controlling sound etc.
Better collection and recycling
One of the greatest challenges of our time is the fact that the waste generated in enterprises or at homes is not collected for recycling. This means that we need introduce incentives for people to sort and recycle as well as strong disincentives for landfill (as well as incineration, on some occasions).
Depending on the kind of waste stream, different solutions can help divert valuable waste from going to landfill. One very attractive solution is the set-up of deposit return schemes which refund consumers for recycling drinks bottles and cans. This has the added benefit that it reduces littering very effectively.
New business models
Thinking differently about how our economy operates should also include a rethink of our business models. Apart from seeking to discover the opportunities that the circular economy offers in terms of job creation (some obvious areas include design professionals or the waste management sector), we should challenge ourselves in terms of the products and services that our society delivers and how it does so.
For instance, ownership patterns could be reconfigured: what about leasing rather than owning products? A lot of companies lease car for their employees but what if this model could be replicated for a range of products?
If we apply the “leasing” model to a number of white goods, such as fridges or dishwashers, this would mean that the producer would have to deal with the product’s end of life management, thus creating an incentive for making the product more easily recyclable; the producer would also have an incentive to ensure the durability and easy reparation of their product. This would seem to a be a win-win for both consumers and the environment.
Introducing cradle-to-cradle as a concept of circular economy: What is the philosophy of cradle-to-cradle design?
The cradle-to-grave global industrial system that has dominated our economy for so long now produces wastes of various kinds that must be managed, or at best, recycled. The lifecycle of products in this system generally ends at disposal, usually as an after-thought. The burden of waste in such a system is typically placed upon individuals and communities to figure out what to do with it.
In contrast, the process of cradle-to-cradle design begins before products are even made.
Everything in this process begins with intention and utilizes designs that consider the human and environmental impacts of a product at each step of its existence: from the sourcing of the resources and materials that the product will be made from, to its production, to its use, and then finally to the disposal and reuse of the materials that will then be made into new products or returned to the earth.
Cradle-to-cradle design does include the recycling of materials that can be remade into new things, but at its very core, it incorporates principles found in nature, where what is waste for one organism ends up as “food” for another organism. There is no “away” in nature, and there is truly no waste.
To incorporate such principles in our industrial systems, we must reuse everything, and never make any toxic waste that cannot be safely incorporated back into the system in some way. Therefore, the creation and use of biodegradable materials and materials that are perpetually recyclable are essential to making products that conform to cradle-to-cradle design standards.
At the end of their usable life, all products are taken back by their manufacturers to be reused and remade into new products or are returned safely to the earth. Such products are also produced by renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power that do not rely on extractive resources and polluting technologies.
How does cradle-to-cradle design work in practical life?
A cradle-to-cradle design system essentially consists of two “metabolisms,” with the first as “biological nutrients” such as biodegradable packaging that can safely be returned to the environment, and the second as a closed loop cycle of “technical nutrients” consisting of high-quality synthetic and mineral resources that are perpetually recovered and remanufactured .
The concept of cradle-to-cradle design is already being implemented in a number of products in various industries.
Electronic device and appliance take-back programs, biodegradable fabrics, and high-quality carpeting materials that can be perpetually recycled into new carpets, such as the Zeftron Savant carpet produced by the Honeywell corporation, are all examples of where such principles are being applied.
Nations such as China are also creating standards for industrial sectors that require cradle-to-cradle principles to be applied during production.
With the implementation of sustainable systems such as cradle-to-cradle design, we no longer need to choose between a healthy economy or a healthy environment. With such intention and design, it may be possible for us to have both.