Sunday, February 19, 2012

Part 1 - Creating the Circular Economy

What was this again?
In my last post about Cora, a new project I am enamored with using mobile technology to help solve our "waste" problem, I mentioned that one of the reasons I think what they're doing is so cool is because "They're helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy".

What is a Circular Economy?


When I say "circular economy", I'm referring to an economy modeled on natural systems where there is no waste - "waste" is an input for other processes.  Raw materials, once extracted from the earth, are continually circulated in the industrial system as industrial nutrients.  Products are designed to be disassembled and reused, or designed to be an input into another product at their end-of-life.  In the industrial ecosystem there are losses along the way (friction - tires, brake pads, band saw blades, etc.) and as part of this thinking those losses are digestible in Nature. Eventually, a material's industrial utility has ended.  At that point, as part of a circular economy, the material may be reintroduced into Nature without any harmful impact. Of course, energy is required to re-purpose industrial waste and/or transport it for its next use.  In an ideal scenario, this energy is derived from renewable sources - including harvesting the heat generated from the very processes the materials are used in. I'm drawing upon my memory of The Natural Step and Cradle to Cradle for this definition.

I wrote the comment "helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy" in passing, almost as a "no-brainer". Then, I read an article from Fast Company's co.exist design site mentioning the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's "Towards the Circular Economy" report prompting me to
 think intently about what it would take to make it happen.  The answer: a lot.

We think about resource use and flow linearly

We've created linear systems of resource flow; we pull something out of the ground, throw a lot of energy into it in the form of manufacturing, use it up and throw it back into the ground. We recycle, that's true, though looking at  mining company financial performance one might conclude that rates of raw material extraction continue to climb. You see, collectively, we generally believe that an item has a useful life and when we're done with it, it's value is minimal or zero - to the point where it is in our best interest to toss it away as valueless, and replace it. We're essentially making an economic decision based upon an item's utility under current social conventions and economic incentives. 

We require a shift in perceived value at an object's end-of-life   

When something is "used up" from an individual perspective - its value to someone else or another organization may be high.  As one of my reuse friends said, "We're so used to buying it instead of making it for ourselves that there's more [social] legitimacy in an item we purchase than if we make exactly the same thing for ourselves at home."  Developing a secondary economy of reuse and upcycling (as is already happening) will help drive change in economic policy to support reuse.  It's not the engineers, energy geeks, and cradle-to-cradle worshippers that see a circular economy as obvious, it's consumers, politicians, gen X, Y, Z, millennials, AARP members, football stars, prom queens, liberals, conservatives, communists, and capitalists -  all of which may be reusers and creative upcyclers

I focused on the physical/material portion of a circular economy in my earlier definition. There's much more to it.  Breaking it down, I see it in three levels (as with most "sustainability" frameworks or buzzwords its a triumvirate like "people, planet, profit", "triple bottom line", "triple top line", ESG, CSR, etc.) 
  • Socially - we meet and exchange goods and services with people we know (probably nearby) and in the process build and strengthen social connections and communities
  • Economically - the goods we exchange have economic value, and the longer those goods circulate in the "material world" the more value they provide for their users and society
  • Environmentally - large amounts of energy were used to create these items, by keeping them circulating, we're improving our EROI and preventing the introduction of indigestible post-human waste into the biosphere
Up next, the the social elements of the circular economy.

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