If you take your keyboard and type “circular economy”, a certain well-known American search engine will immediately show 8.65 million results with that query term. The result is surprising, considering that in April 2015 an identical search only yielded 471,000 results. A surge in both investigative and academic research and texts show lively interest around this new macroeconomic theory.
What is circular economy?
The term “circular economy” is de facto a neologism, which combines both theory and practice. While other theories may be widely assimilated, a circular economy has a clear industrial vocation. So, it is mostly tied to material goods, which from time to time are linked to finance, service economics, labor standards, digitalization, decarbonization of the global economy, etc.
The circular economy’s definition given by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a leading think-tank on the topic) and accepted in the academic world is an economy “restorative and regenerative by design. In a circular economy, there are two kinds of material cycles: biological, capable of being reintegrated into the biosphere, and technical, destined to be re-valorized without entering the biosphere.”
The circular economy is, therefore, a constantly evolving economic model of great complexity. All activities, from extraction to production and beyond, are organized so that someone’s waste and unused material become resources for someone else.
Three principles of circular economy
To formalize the circular economy, it has been reduced to the following principles (Bompan 2016):
1) The first is to rediscover discarded matter as sources of material, limiting processing as much as possible. Secondary raw material sources might be plentiful but are not yet thoroughly explored.
2) The second principle is linked to the end of the unused value of the product: this is all the matter that is left unused for the majority of its time, from cars parked on the streets for 95% of their time, to unused stock in warehouse.
3) The third principle is to stop the premature death of materials. Repairing, upgrading, and reviewing our ingrained practices of obsolescence are helpful strategies to stop waste of material. Fashion, programmed obsolescence and bad design are its enemies.
These three principles can be adopted by any economic sector involving new product design strategy, new supply chains, new business models (think product-as-service, buyback-for-repair, etc.), new financial concepts, new LCAs and even a new bottom line. Now, this is a massive operation, even for the biggest and most innovative of corporations. It requires analysis, evaluation, new professionals, new third-party affiliates to work with and new financial institutions that are ready for the circular economy. Indeed, we have many examples: Renault and Car2Go for automotive, H&M and MUD Jeans for fashion, Ricoh and Google in IT, Banca San Paolo in finance, and Progetto Manifattura as a circular-start-up incubator. But so much has yet to be done.
In nature elements interact with each other as cycles, so should circular supply chains
As the circular economy imitates the natural principle of non-existence of waste, it should also work as a complex organism where circles of matter and goods intersect in any possible, meaningful way. As in nature, multiple flows of elements interact with each other as cycles (nitrogen, water, carbon, etc.) so circular supply chains and business models should interact and intersect. How can we connect all these parts together? How can a supply chain interact in a regenerative, additive, way, directly supporting the flux of material?
These questions are challenging, but a few examples can give us an idea of the possible application of the circular economy considered as an “industrial system that is regenerative and restorative by design, rethinks products and services to design out waste and negative impacts, and builds economic, social and natural capital” as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Some examples of solutions to the growing issues of oceans’ plastic waste
Let’s see some examples that give a positive answer to the growing issues of ocean plastic pollution. Globally, 10% of the oceans’ plastic waste is discarded fishing gear, which is also identified as the most harmful form of marine plastic pollution.
Aquafil is one of the leading players, both in Italy and globally, in the production of Polyamide 6, and is committed to the research of new production models for sustainable development. This commitment leads to the regular renewal of processes and products in terms of optimization of its production cycle, and the regeneration of waste materials in the international market to be included in its production process. Since its introduction in 2011, the ECONYL® Regeneration System has been the world’s most efficient industrial system for the production of nylon 6 from 100% regenerated waste materials.
Aquafil recycles the upper parts of end-of-life carpets and fishing nets to create nylon 6 polymers, that are used in different sectors, for the manufacturing of carpets, swimwear, clothes, etc. Aquafil has also contributed to implementing special projects such as reclaiming spent carpets from landfills and creating ambitious environmental programs, like the Health Seas initiative. This project was founded by ECNC Land & Sea Group, the Italian fiber manufacturer Aquafil (owner of the ECONYL® brand), and the Dutch sock licenser Star Sock. This initiative creates a virtuous circle, which, on a regenerative level, brings considerable benefits for the oceans like the survival of marine species and help for the communities.
Another example is Bureo, a young company who developed a business model based on the circular economy concept. They founded Net+Positiva in 2013.Through this program, Bureo participates directly with coastal communities across Chile to provide the equipment and training to collect back discarded fishing nets. Bureo recycles the waste into raw material for inspiring recycled and recyclable products, such as skateboards and sunglasses. Through the funds collected from the sale of these products, Bureo is able to continue the expansion of Net+Positiva while funding additional projects in coastal areas most affected by these types of waste.
In addition, the Bureo team is working toward a whole life-cycle solution for the production process, striving to create a product that has a proven net positive impact on the environment and people and gain a Living Product Challenge (LPC) certification, one of the most challenging sustainable product certifications available. According to the website for the International Living Future Institute,“The Living Product Challenge is a framework for manufacturers to create products that are healthy, inspirational and give back to the environment”. This certification requires an assessment and an analysis of the product to demonstrate that the product produces a net positive impact. A product that achieves this level of performance can claim to be the greenest and most socially responsible and will serve as a model for future companies that pursue this certification.
Circular economy requires systemic thinking
A truly circular economy is global, holistic, quantic, complex and cross-fertilizing (with continuous feedback). It requires systemic thinking to find all the possible ways to zero waste and maximize product-use value. During all our discussions, there is one question that always arises: “How can we speed up cross-fertilization, fast-start circular conversions and create a new sharing, product-as-a-service, repair-oriented business model?”
To many, the answer is to share knowledge. During a recent interview with Kate Raworth, author of one of the most interesting economics book of the last decade, “The Doughnut Economy”, Raworth said, “A circular economy that is functioning truly as an ecosystem within an economy needs to be open-sourced and open-materials based. In this way, it doesn’t try to stay just within the limits of one company, but it becomes an industry-wide system so that many companies are engaged together. […]”
Sometimes, the circular economy is seen only as a strategy to reuse some materials and reduce some waste. We haven’t seen yet the full potential of it at a larger scale. But a true circular economy transcends sectors and requires investments in the long term from various civil society stakeholders.
Joint efforts by the government, businesses, consumers and social organization to build circular economy
In cities such as Helsinki, Torino, London, Maribor, Trento and Barcelona, public officials, mostly from environmental and economic development offices, are working to connect the dots. For the government, the most important condition for success in creating these opportunities is to roll out a consistent long-term strategy that is strongly multidisciplinary and cross-departmental in character and based on strong foundations — one that can take a blow. Such a strategy requires joint and targeted efforts by the government, businesses, consumers and social organizations.
Municipalities should build new infrastructure to make a circular economy possible, from car-sharing parking to public prototype labs, from craftsman repair centers to regenerative planning and urban design. Business associations like the Italian Confindustria, Confcommercio, and Confcooperative Confartigiano have to create a national effort first to really promote the circular economy and create a clear, cross-departmental, consistent strategy for building a circular economy. Second, they must map the actor and seize opportunities. Third, the regional level should create a platform to research waste fluxes and open-data infrastructure. Fourth, parliament should make a comprehensive assessment of the pros and cons of existing rules and regulations regarding waste focusing on which rules and regulations that are potentially restrictive to a circular economy.
A circular economy has the quality of closing the circles, and it is not an obvious solution in our “throwaway” society.
Circular economy concept is a great opportunity for designers and architects
For designers and architects, the circular economy concept is a great opportunity to rethink the design in a responsible manner, always keeping in mind some general concepts:
- Foster regenerative processes and re-use of the existing building stock as well as revitalizing degraded environments;
- Design new buildings and fit-out considering flexibility requirements, meaning the building shall be reconverted with low environmental impacts during its lifespan;
- Promote the use of building products that come to life from waste through virtuous closed-loop production processes;
- Consider disassembling criteria in the design to allow the reuse and recycling of building products and materials at the end-of-their life.
Want to know more about how to implement circular economy in your next architectural design project? Download our free webinar ‘’Innovation in materials production and building construction’’.
The circular economy is a far-reaching concept at the forefront of sustainability thinking.
Developing a real circular economy is an impressive task. But failing means to have another, useless green economy able only to do “less bad”.
Founder and owner of Macro Design Studio Srl, Paola is an architect and sustainability consultant. She works as facilitator and manager of design and construction teams, contributing in the certification process of numerous LEED® buildings in Europe. Paola is LEED AP BD+C, LEED AP ID+C, LEED Green Rater, LEED Faculty and Living Future Accredited (LFA). She is involved in training programs, developing courses about sustainability, LEED protocols, sustainable building sites and the envelope commissioning
Bompan is a journalist and a geographer with international experience. He reports on the circular economy, energy, climate change, and the environment. He has published the book “Che cosa è l’economia circolare” (Ed. Ambiente), about the rise of the circular economy. He has been awarded with the Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellowship and four times The Innovation in Development Reporting Grant. In 2015, he was awarded with “Reporter per la Terra” 1st prize. In 2016, he received the DNI Google a+Award with La Stampa.