CIRCULAR ECONOMY: BEYOND RECYCLING
Economics teaches us that resources are limited and that meeting every need and want may be impossible. Using the same construct, natural resources are often not inexhaustible. To put it in context, the timeline for replenishment is not within the human timeline. So, if we are to exhaust those resources, the next generation and even the present one will not have access to them. Hence, the concept of sustainability.
The old economic model (the linear economy) is to take the natural resources, use and make a product, and discard them. This model led to the generation of tonnes of waste. Today, we have a waste problem, and resources depleting faster than they can be replenished. According to Statista, the worldwide production of plastics reached a staggering 390.7 million metric tons in 2021. Plastic pollution is a menace, and our biodiversity is increasingly threatened. According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increases in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.
Fundamentally, the circular economy deviates from the old model and speaks to resource efficiency. Instead of producing tonnes of waste, is there a way to not make the waste? Or is it possible to increase the lifespan of the product?
Again, instead of a product, can we render a service? Instead of owning a product, we can rent it. What if we design the product to make it easy to recycle? In the circular model, we have the sharing and the collaborative economy.
The circular economy model is not just about product; it is about the business model that promotes efficiency and reduces waste production. It is a way of thinking by designing with the end in mind. In this construct, we are increasing the loop, extending the product’s lifespan, and promoting a service-oriented system.
For most manufacturing environments, the prevailing model is the cradle-to-grave approach. Products end up in the landfill. The cradle-to-cradle model seeks to create a closed circle where waste is considered a resource incorporated in a continuous closed cycle with less energy consumption or waste generation. The circular model aims to decouple economic growth from the overutilization of resources.
Let’s look at the circular economy in terms of loops. So basically, we have three circles: Narrowing the loop, slowing the loop, and closing the loop.
Narrowing loops: This is about reducing the materials needed per product or service. It speaks to resource efficiency and aligns with lean manufacturing.
Slowing loops: using a business model that supports continuous reuse over time. In this loop, we tried to retain the value of products and materials for as long as possible. We can lengthen the lifespans of products by designing long-live goods, product life extension, and service loops of repair and remanufacturing.
Closing the loop: Closing resource loops can be achieved through recycling, where the loop between disposal and production is closed, resulting in a circular flow of resources. This requires design, business models, and value chain changes to improve recovery and recycling rates.
Not all products can be recycled, or the economics may not make sense. Thus, we should focus on narrowing the loop and slowing the loop, maximizing the value of products.
How does circular economy add value to society?
Resources worldwide are not evenly distributed, creating power dynamics fueled by demand and supply. The circular economy will ensure global resource availability as fewer virgin resources will be extracted, promoting the conservation of natural systems and optimizing their ecological goods and services. Using resources more efficiently means there will be fewer threats to the environment.
To drive the circular economy, we need a new way of thinking. We need new materials that can be produced from recovered raw materials, products that are easy to recover and reuse. We need policies that encourage the end-of-life design mindset. For example, the Extended Producer Responsibility policy in Nigeria birthed the Food and Beverages Recycling Association, which is working to address the plastic problem.
Broad social changes, new ways of thinking, technological innovation, reduced consumption, speed upshifts of products to services, stimulate the sharing of goods, and lengthen product lifetimes. These are the catalysts for a circular economy, a model where raw materials start and end and do not poison the environment or threaten society.