It's Circular Economy Week – but what does that mean?
What comes around, goes around so it’s been said and maybe with some acknowledgement to that universal truth it’s Circular Economy Week.
We humans like straight lines and that is very much how we use raw materials to produce the stuff we have in our lives.
The process is simple and easy to follow. Dig or pump resources out of the earth, use energy to mould, shape and manufacture. Ship, train or truck to the point of distribution. On its journey from extraction to end disposal, we bulk-up, containerise, package and palletize. Products packaged and delivered whether to a warehouse, store or our door.
And when we have ‘consumed our product’ what next?
Every sector of society has its own language for rubbish. Having worked in the waste industry a few years ago, believe me, it’s a fascinating area with some brilliant and inventive words for the stuff we chuck away; chaff, char, discard, dregs, excess, dross, junk, leavings, muck, off-cuts, odds and ends, remnants, residue, swill, scum, scrap, trash, and so on. Our household trash-talk favourite is ‘nubbin’ which seems to date back to the 1680s. Strange that we have over 5,000 words for rubbish but only one for our planet and all the life on it, Earth.
So when something we use reaches its end-of-life, most of the time we just throw it away. And that’s only part of the story, the stuff that does not make the cut as product is also waste. Maybe it will get used, maybe not; whatever happens, we consumers don’t see it so not our problem, right?
Wrong. Our economy thrives on this straight-line approach. We think that everything will keep getting produced. We have the resources, don’t we, and of course they won’t run out. And while we are using them at eye-achingly fast rates we create all this garbage.
So this is where going round in circles is actually the sensible thing to do. Avoid the straight line from raw material, product to bin and think about keeping those materials in the loop time and time again. Design the product right and it can be repaired. When it’s finished with, the product can be taken apart and used say in a car, phone or sofa. If the parts cannot be reused, they can be broken down and made into something else. Finally, when there is no further use for the bits that are left return them back safely into the environment.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work on the circular economy and how it can be the only way forward is well worth checking out. Ellen, as you may remember, was an amazingly resilient solo sailor. Before she set off on her long, lonely trips around the globe she would plan for every eventually and survive only on what her yacht had on board.
This approach led her to become amazingly resourceful and also respectful of the stuff that, in her situation, literally kept her alive. Nothing was wasted or wasteful. Everything served its purpose. Taking that thinking into her post-sailing career, she and her team have researched and advocated the circular economy as the only solution to the linear approach.
The principles of the circular economy apply in business or at home where products are designed for more than just disposal or recycling. But much more needs to be done. For example, we can tackle plastic packaging by design so that after it has served its first life’s purpose, say protecting your home-delivery, it can then be brought back into use because it has value.
So whether you are in business, at home or in school and want to know more, take a moment to check out what Ellen has said this week. If you want to get the message across to the next generation, the Planet Patrol provides some great free resources for all learning environments, at home or school.
From this week, try to think circular.
-- Peter Gudde is an energy adviser and environmental researcher