As discussed in previous blogs, the circular economy model recognises the unsustainability of our current relationship between economics and environment. Our linear system takes natural resources from the earth, we manufacture them into products (with plenty of pollution and waste), we use those products until they are no good to us any more, then we dump them, often in landfill.
If natural resources were unlimited and cheap this model would work well. But resources are neither unlimited nor cheap. And the destruction of resources comes with a price. We have known this for far longer than most people realize. There were environmental protection laws as early as 1306. That was when Edward I of England realized that coal, then quite new to London, was destroying the air. He banned the burning of coal within the city to combat the noxious clouds of coal smoke that settled over everything. But the ban was largely ignored, and people just got used to the smog, centuries before the industrial revolution. In 1880 a toxic cloud of coal smoke choked, smothered and killed 2,200 Londoners, and they still did not get the message. It wasn’t until the Great Smog of 1952, when between 10,000 and 12,000 people were killed over four days, that anything was done to tackle the problem.
Which brings us neatly back to the circular economy.
Just as centuries of Londoners didn’t care about the effects of their activities on their environment, our linear production model doesn’t care about diminishing resources. It is estimated that we have 188 years of coal left, and just 29 years of silver. Helium is rapidly running out, yet we waste it on party balloons. Soaring world population and rampant consumerism are not helping.
We are hurtling towards complete environmental destruction, robbing the earth of its natural resources to meet our shortsighted demands – and this crisis demands new ways of thinking. Circular thinking.
What is the meaning of the circular economy?
The circular economy is a response to the linear economy. So let’s start by looking at the traditional model. In the linear economy we take a natural resource and turn it into a product. Along the way we produce waste, which we dispose of. The product is used until it is no longer needed, then disposed of in turn. The process can be summed up in a series of steps. Take. Make. Pollute. Use. Dispose. Pollute.
In contrast the circular economy emphasises manufacturing processes that reduce waste, that reuse old products, and that recycle, and use recycled materials in the manufacturing process. Again it can be summed up in a series of steps: Make. Use. Reuse. Remake. Recycle. Make… It comes full circle.
The circular economy involves sourcing your raw materials carefully. You may be able to use sustainable raw materials, or recycled ones. Then look at making your manufacturing process more efficient and less wasteful. Look at the waste you produce, and see if that can be recycled or reused. Then look at your packaging, and make sure it is either recyclable or compostable. Then look at your entire organisation – do a waste audit. Aim to produce no waste, but to reuse as much as possible, and you are going circular.
How do you move to a circular economy?
The best way is in steps. Don’t do it all together. Start with the low-hanging fruit. Can one of your raw materials be swapped for a recycled version, or a sustainably produced one? Look at your transport costs – can you go electric? Look to your packaging, go paperless in the office. Every journey consists of a series of steps. At CEC we would be happy to gently nudge you along the right path.
What is a sustainable circular economy?
Sustainability is crucial – and easy to understand. During the winter you can burn coal to heat your home. But your grandchildren will not be able to, because we are running out of coal, and in two generations it will be as rare as dinosaur feathers.
But you could burn logs instead. And if those logs come from a managed forest, your children will be able to burn them too, because it takes a little over twenty years to grow an evergreen to maturity in Ireland. If we manage our forests we will not run out of logs, because they are a sustainable, renewable resource.
Both the linear and the circular economic model can include sustainability. But the mindset of the circular economy puts sustainability front and centre. In a fully circular process the waste materials will become either another resource for the company, or a recovered resource for some other company. Or the waste goes back into nature as compost. It’s not landfill. This is a sharp contrast to the traditional linear model, where the waste is something that needs to be disposed of.
Examples of the circular economy
You don’t have to look far to find examples of the circular economy. A few weeks ago Lidl’s Thursday specials included stylish sports t-shirts, which they were proud to boast were made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
And it’s not just t-shirts – fleeces, and down jackets, can also be made from old bottles.
Here is another example of waste becoming a recovered resource. Many riding schools use sand for their exercise yards. It is easy on the horses hooves. But some have switched to using the insulating coating of electrical wires. When the copper is stripped out during the recycling process, the insulated coating can be chopped finely and makes a great substitute for sand. So a beach is saved, and less goes into landfill.
Or consider the brightly coloured stones that some people spread over a grave. Some of those stones are not quarried; they are recycled glass. Examples of the circular economy are all around us, and if you are tuned into them, they can inform your choices as a consumer. We can all do our bit to bend the line into a hoop and go circular.