Circular Economy: key principles for a more sustainable future

Have you ever asked yourself what your phone is made of? And your fridge? Which materials are used to assemble your car?

Have you ever reflected on how often you buy new items rather than fix the ones you already own? Where do your things go after you toss them?

Understanding the idea behind the circular economy can help have a better grasp of the flow of materials and products in our system.

The industrial revolution signed the beginning of a new era of production, bringing to life technologies that could meet the demand of a growing human population by producing fast and affordable goods. As the production pace improved, the consumption rate did as well.

The current economy follows a linear model characterised by an inefficient use of materials and resources and based on a take-make-use-dispose approach: products are designed to be disposed after their use-phase, generating high volumes of waste.

What does this mean?

The new manufacturing processes and the consequent economic growth result today in inefficient natural resources’ consumption that goes way beyond the earth carrying capacity systems, also known as planetary boundaries.

The linear system characterising the modern society has led during the last decades to environmental and social challenges threatening the health of both planet and humans: air and soil pollution, natural resources exploitation, ecosystems’ degradation and climate change are some of them. 

The current untenable approach might lead to the collapse of natural systems’ capability to support and supply the society in the long run.

This highlights the need to implement a global framework that can reduce human pressure on the environment, through the development of innovative production and consumption strategies. 

Circular economy definition, key elements and benefits

The approach that challenges the “take-make-dispose” model is the one endorsed by the concept of Circular Economy and forged by McDonough and Braungart’s notion of “cradle-to-cradle” (I very much suggest to read their book “Cradle to cradle” for a better understanding of the theory).

Initially influenced by various schools of thought, the concept of Circular Economy can be defined as an “economic system that aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles ”.

(Credits: Ecologic Institute)

The above definition of circular economy, suggested by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, highlights the need to redesign industrial processes to build a system that keeps products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems while avoiding waste. 

One of the main principles supporting this economic model is the cycle of resources within the production process, that promotes the usage of the product waste as a resource to produce goods within the same chain or external ones. This translates in the retention of environmental and economic value of products through the full lifecycle (from the material extraction to the end-of-life phase) by creating inner loops (repair, reuse, and remanufacturing with narrowing and slowing loops strategies) allowing products to cycle longer in the economy before returning to the material basics.

The logics of resource efficiency and products’ lifespan extension are at the basis of eco-design strategies and innovative business models, essential for companies to transit towards a sustainable system. 

In contrast to linear business models, in which products lose their value after a single use phase, circular business models address the preservation of the embedded value at the highest level of utility through the implementation of the so-called “closing the loop” strategy. 

(Credits: government.nl)

The difference with the other two approaches, currently in use in some cases (slowing and narrowing loops), lays in the way how resources flow within a system: while the latter aim at using fewer resources and extending the lifetime of a product, the circular strategy’s goal is to close loops between the end-of-life and the production phases, leading to a circular flow of resources and avoiding waste in the first place

Future steps: Circular Economy Action Plan and social commitment

To empower a successful transition to a circular system, all actors of our society are required to take part in the process. Governments, businesses, and civil society play different but fundamental roles in the global shift.

New policies formulations are necessary at a local, national, and international level for a systematic change to be in place: an example is represented by the new Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted by the European Union within the context of sustainable development agenda. As part of the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan aims at making sustainable production processes a norm in EU, keeping resources in the economy for as long as possible and advocating sustainable consumption. The implementation of legislative and non-legislative measures can promote a transition to a circular economy by minimising obstacles and encouraging businesses and customers with incentives and tools. 

(Credits: UNIDO)

Another crucial factor for a successful transition is the participation of the civil society and the knowledge sharing between actors. Individual consumption choices carry an important weight in the production of environmental impacts. The massive volume of new goods produced every day – and often manufactured in foreign countries – is fed by the increasing demand for all types of products worldwide. The delocalisation of production processes – happening often in sectors as fashion and electronics- leads to environmental and social injustices that cannot longer be ignored. 

How can we then help in a global transition?

Product and knowledge sharing represent a good solution to reduce the global demand and promote local and community-based initiatives. It does not sound new, does it? 

Today’s digital technology empowers such approaches in a variety of sectors, including accommodation, mobility, furniture, and fashion.

But to make our society more circular, we must shape our consumption habits around the idea that every product we own can deliver value even after its “perceived” end of life. 

This concept of functional thinking – think of the product value as function- can hold the basis for an access-based consumption:  the customer is no longer the owner of the product, but can access its value by using it only when needed. A similar idea is developed around the concept of knowledge sharing, supporting collective initiatives for repairing, recycling, and upcycling products. Bike kitchens and repair cafes are just some examples.

These approaches can help reduce the massive production of new goods by optimising the use of the existing ones, beside promoting social cohesion and wellbeing.  

National and international regulation are necessary to ensure a transition to circular production systems, sustainable business models and responsible consumption, but a successful implementation can happen if all actors collaborate at different levels towards common goals, driven by same logics and motivations.

Food for thoughts: our suggestions

Want to know more about the Circular Economy? Here below some sources you can take inspiration from.

-Readings-

Braungart & McDonough’s books, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” (2002) and the follow-up “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability–Designing for Abundance”.

-Movies-

“The Story of Stuff”, a short, fast-paced, fact-filled documentary about our production and consumption habits.

-Websites –

   to learn…

Ellen MacArthur foundation

European commission, circular economy section

….and to exchange and interact! 

European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform

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