The world’s mineral and metal reserves are dwindling, but that doesn’t mean it’s time for development to switch into reverse gear. If we could redesign our profligate industrial processes, say circular economists, we could put a stop to our throwaway habits without sacrificing growth.
Instead of burning or burying millions of tonnes of waste every year, we could take today’s garbage − even the fragments of plastics that hapless seabirds ingest − and use them as the building blocks to make anything from carpets to laptops.
Although the circular economy is often mentioned in the same breath as recycling, the two should not be conflated. Materials that have been jumbled up in the waste stream or contaminated lose much of their value and the recycling process for cleaning and converting them into usable products can itself consume a large amount of energy.
In the circular economy the emphasis is on designing goods to be long-lasting, easy to repair and reuse, easy to disassemble and easy to remake into items that are as good, if not better, than their virgin equivalents.
And it is not all about squeezing more life from a fixed stock of resources that have been dug from the ground at heavy cost to the environment. By developing bio-materials, circular innovators hope one day to replace petroleum-derived plastics with compostable plant-based materials that can be returned to the ecosystem after use.
Who is doing it?
Some of the world’s largest companies such as Renault and Rolls-Royce have embraced circular practices because it makes commercial sense. Caterpillar, the heavy machinery manufacturer, has an entire remanufacturing operation − Cat Reman – dedicated to the recovery of engine parts, which it remanufactures to same-as-new condition and sells under warranty at reduced prices.
Some consumer brands have also begun experimenting with circular retailing. Dutch apparel maker MUD Jeans allows customers to rent instead of buy jeans, which it undertakes to repair and ultimately remake into new jeans. Also much talked about is the idea that makers of white goods, such as washing machines, could lease rather than sell their appliances and charge customers per wash.
But, even supposing people can be persuaded to think of domestic appliances as services to use rather than assets to own, the complexity of keeping track of a multitude of goods circulating on company books makes consumer sector tricky to take on.
What is more, while a rental approach puts more onus on companies to invest in durable design, you still need regulations to enforce zero landfill and ensure the recovery of materials when products are discarded.
Where is it already taking off?
Widespread adoption may be some way off, but in some corners of the economy, such as the office, circular business models are making headway. Photocopiers were one of the early adopters of the rent not buy approach, with manufacturers recovering and remanufacturing machines at their end of life. Other businesses are doing the same.
Interface, a multinational carpet tile maker that has pledged to achieve “zero impact” on the environment by 2020, recovers old tiles from its customers and turns them into new ones. Once separated from the backing, the nylon yarn fluff is sent back to the company’s yarn supplier to make new yarn and the backing is ground up and melted to supply feedstock for future production.
Interface also sources recovered nylon through Net-Works, a social enterprise that incentivises fishing communities in developing countries to gather and sell broken fishing nets that local fishermen would otherwise cast overboard, creating hazards for marine life.
Rob Boogaard, the European chief executive of Interface, says his hope is that ultimately the company will recover not just fishing nets but also bottles and bags from the “plastic soup” polluting the oceans, and turn them into carpet tiles too. Interface also offers bio-based tiles made from yarn derived principally from castor bean plants, which thrive in areas where it is difficult to grow food crops.
Desso, another carpet tile manufacturer building on circular economy principles, has designed a collection of tiles made using re-engineered calcium carbonate (chalk) from local drinking water companies and post-consumer yarn waste. The collection, due to launch in October has been awarded Cradle to Cradle gold certification.
And the opportunities for creating circular offices aren’t limited to carpeting. Based on research by Wrap, a waste prevention charity, each year hundreds of thousands of office chairs and desks end up in landfill. Yet, with skilful craftsmanship and well-designed recovery programmes many of them could be repaired or remade to good-as-new condition at a fraction of the energy and materials consumption and cost of purchasing new, says Greg Lavery, CEO of office specialist Rype Office. Launched in 2014, Rype offers its clients options to lease furniture on a “repair and replace” contract, or sell it back to be remade into new pieces when the surface coatings and fabrics begin to scuff and fray.
Is this the future?
Reinventing the global industrial system – which is what the circular economy aspires to do – is a tantalising prospect. But change will not come overnight.
Building products such that their components can readily be disassembled transforms the economics of repair and remanufacturing, but requires designers and architects to give as much weight to achieving recoverability as they give to novelty and style. For mainstream manufacturers to adopt pay-as-you-go leasing models may require banks to devise new financial products to offset the loss of upfront income from immediate sales.
But above all, for the circular economy to flourish, industry and governments need to agree the rules for measuring and communicating the net environmental impact of circular processes. Only then can the public have confidence that the adopters of circular solutions are offering remedies to the planet’s problems and not just cherry-picking statistics that tell a good story.