Towards a Circular Economy!

Why should we be talking about the Circular Economy?

The way our economy is currently designed is unsustainable in the long run. We take a large portion of the finite and renewable resources from the Earth, often without considering the consequences extraction will have on our fragile ecosystem or communities. We use these resources to make goods and products, losing a lot of the materials along the way. Then, after shorter and shorter usage cycles (just think of how long you wear your clothes, or how often you changed computer or mobile over your lifetime) these goods are thrown away as waste, waste which is difficult to recycle and is often dumped in lower-income communities and countries. This system of production, that takes, makes and wastes resources is what is referred to as the linear economy.

Over 65 billion tonnes of raw materials entered the chain of production in 2010, and this is expected to increase to 82 billion tonnes by 2020. It is estimated that each year, the manufacturing of products in OECD* countries consumes over 21 billion tonnes of materials that aren’t physically used in the products themselves. Only 10% in 2015, of the raw materials extracted worldwide, re-entered the economic system by recycling. Furthermore, of all the goods produced with these materials, less than 40% was recycled, composted or reused. It is so easy and cheap to use new materials that re-using them is 1) simply not an economic priority and 2) we oftentimes lack the know-how and solutions required to change this.

As a result, this linear economy approach of using resources means that we are using more than our earth is actually able to provide. We are damaging valuable natural resources, and transporting our waste to lower income communities for recycling, ultimately putting the burden of the social and economic costs of pollution on those communities, putting their future at risk.

The old system and linear approach to doing business have created major challenges. The Circular Economy is an opportunity to redesign our economy in order to have a positive social and environmental impact. We need a new way of living and working, a paradigm shift, where:

  • We reduce consumption of primary resources and protect the environment
  • We design materials and products that last through repair and durability
  • Waste is seen as an ingredient for creating something new and
  • Society is driven by principles of diversity, inclusion, and creating a positive environmental footprint.

So what is the Circular Economy?

Imagine an economic system inspired by nature’s own ecosystem, adaptable, lasting, where materials are reused, and there is no waste. The term Circular Economy describes this system and its potential for positive social and environmental impact.

The first widely adopted definition of Circular Economy was developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, based on three key principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems.

This definition of the Circular Economy model rethinks the way we use and reuse materials as well as design products, goods and services. This means products are:  

  • Designed for Longevity, they are built to last, repaired or resold within their lifetimes;
  • Designed for Service, making them easier to repair, or return to manufacturers for recycling or repurposing;
  • Designed for Remanufacture, meaning when products breakdown, faulty parts are easily replaced, instead of buying a new product, and
  • Designed for Recycling, essentially made out of single compound (mono-materials e.g. just glass, or just steel) that can be easily recycled, reduced to a raw form for remanufacturing.

Building on this definition, CRCLR views Circular Economy as a model that can bring about socio-economic transformation, changing the way our society relates not only to resources, materials, the environment but also how we relate to each other. The Circular Economy can help make waste a thing of the past, and preserve our earth for the future!

Does Circular Economy always mean the same thing?

Not necessarily. Circular Economy is an overarching framework for various approaches to reducing waste to zero and circular models for living and working. That means, there are many different ways to understand and apply circular economy principles. For example, Cradle to cradle uses nature’s example of reusing nutrients and resources as a model for production processes, designing out waste. Biomimicry looks at nature’s best ideas and then copies these designs and processes to develop products and services. The Sharing Economy, encourages an open-source community and peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services. Then there are several other approaches, namely Industrial ecology,  the Blue economy, the Performance economy and many more. Each school of thought provides a useful approach for thinking through and developing circular solutions to today’s challenges.

Is Circular Economy a new trend?

While Circular Economy as a framework has become more visible over the last decade, the principles that guide it date back centuries. For example, as far back as 2500 BC, objects were recycled and remanufactured for new uses. If a bronze axe was damaged or no longer used, its axehead could easily be melted and remoulded into a new bronze object. Bronze was considered too rare and too valuable to discard. However, as the global population has grown and societies have evolved and modernised, our production processes have also become more wasteful. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for the linear economy, and this model has continued to be the template for the global industry.

Criticism of this linear model gained international momentum when the ‘’Limits to Growth’’ report was published in 1972 by a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using computer models, the scientists found out that the rate at which we consume resources and the rate at which our population continues to grow is unsustainable. Although initially dismissed, the report gained prominence in the early 2000s, catalyzing a global conversation about the destructive impact of unrestricted resource exploitation and our limited understanding of environmental issues in light of climate change.  

This conversation paved the way for other people, also passionate about changing how we view and use resources to advocate for a larger scale transition towards the Circular Economy. Leading the way, William McDonough and Dr Michael Braungart developed the Cradle to Cradle design philosophy in the 1990s, shifting the understanding of “materials as biological or technical nutrients” and encouraging industries to learn from nature in their design and manufacturing processes. Building on this growing movement, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established in 2010 with the aim of advancing the circular economy around the world. The Foundation raises awareness about Circular Economy, conducting research, and connecting people, organisations and initiatives into an active dialogue on how to make a lasting, global change. With the growing visibility and awareness, more and more initiatives have been launched (including CRCLR in 2016, as Berlin’s first platform and centre for Circular Economy!) to advocate for a faster and more mindful transition to a Circular Economy.

What would it take for our world to become more circular?

Glad you asked! Reducing our waste to zero, adapting how we use resources, is a major task. Despite progress through global cooperation, and agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement in 2015, the global community is still far away from reaching its climate change, global gas emissions and waste reduction targets. We need ambitious, faster and binding change now!

A paradigm shift is necessary across our economic and political systems and in how our communities relate to the environment.

The first step is to start thinking in loops; considering how we can use, reuse, recycle our resources, and actively minimize our waste. Circular thinking helps us to see our materials differently and creates room for us to experiment, developing alternative models of business that can foster lasting impact. For instance, the sharing economy has grown as an example of how communities can share resources as part of a profitable and lasting economic model. Scaling up of other successful business models, that incorporate circular approaches to using and reusing resources, can demonstrate the potential for a circular economy and facilitate a smoother transition towards living and working in a more circular way.

Second, policymakers, governments and state institutions hold the key to addressing the structural shifts that need to take place in our economic and social systems. Renewed political will can catalyze the development of lasting and binding goals for global climate action, the creation of incentives for sustainable production and consumption, as well as provide a new vision for a circular and equitable society. Our leaders have the power to shape our future production, societies and engagement galvanizing lasting and impactful change.

Finally, citizen engagement and advocacy for systems change can strengthen representative dialogues on Circular Economy, inform the emergence of a lasting framework for societal transformation, and move us towards a more circular society. Collective action can shape circular transitions in education, society, and citizen engagement. Through collaborative, consistent action we can push our societies to become more circular, more intersectional and more sustainable.

However, collective action starts with an individual step and there are few things you can do today, to develop a more circular lifestyle.

What would it take for me personally to become more circular?

Living in a completely circular way may seem too ambitious of a goal for now. The good news is that everyone can take steps in the right direction and thus raise awareness. We can take a lot of inspiration from the zero waste movement, reducing our ecological footprint with the ultimate goal of living entirely waste-free.

Here are four day to day practices you can change today!

  • Adopt a buyerarchy of needs! Adapted from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, illustrator Sarah Lazarovic developed a useful framework to help individuals choose products, goods, and services in a more circular way. Use this framework to guide consumer choices, and remember buying should always be the last option.

  • Try packaging alternatives! On average, each person in Germany generates about 221 kg of packaging waste a year! Aim to reduce the packaging waste you create, by switching to reusable bags, and containers when shopping, opting for packaging free goods and even stores in your neighbourhood, that you can find using the Bulk Finder app from Zero Waste Home.
  • Reduce food waste! Approximately, 95-115 kgs of food waste are produced per person in Europe every year. Losses at the source of the food production need to be prevented. Minimize food waste by 1) planning your meals more mindfully, buying less food 2) Storing your fruits and vegetables in ways that help them last longer, and don’t be afraid to use the freezer 3) Make the most of leftovers! Add them to new recipes, or use them to make enzymatic cleaners! And leftovers can always go towards your own homemade composter.    Food Waste Cascade diagram adapted from Flemish Food Supply Chain Platform for Food Loss (2017)
  • Look out for lasting textiles! A whopping 87% of fibres used in clothing ultimately end up in landfill or incineration. Try buying clothes that will last you a lifetime, that are both durable and stylish! Buying clothes second hand is also a great option that can reduce the ecological footprint of producing clothing by 73%!

Additional resources: