It has been almost a month since we started sharing thoughts, ideas and opinions about circular economy through this channel and we have received very encouraging input. As you might know our aim is to help the circular economy become the business as usual scenario because we absolutely believe it is the right approach to sustainable development. We have started by spreading the word about it, sharing with people what it is, explaining why and how does it work and by learning from experts all the details about it.
Now we are starting a new stage in this path that we believe will contribute more to our aim. As of today you will find two new sections in our website: connection and opportunity. In the first section we want to identify companies and people that are becoming circular to help them connect in the near future and work together to bring the circular economy to scale. In the second section we want to know what opportunities for learning and sharing are out there regarding circularity and innovation so we can help individuals interested in becoming circular innovators find them.
We will continue curating and creating content that is useful for circular and non circular professionals in the hope of positively contributing to a sustainable world. We would like to have contributions from people working on the topic and hear from newbies what is needed to accelerate the transition towards a Circular Economy so we will be contacting interested people to join us.
Finally, thank you for the comments, retweets, follows, unfollows and messages. Keep it coming.
When talking about the circular economy many people automatically think about increasing recycling rates as the only way to achieve a zero-waste economy. And these people are not only common citizens concerned with environmental crisis but they are also government officials, businessmen and researchers. Some experts in the area have already raised this concern in the media when the European Union issued its communication on circular economy last July pointing its bias towards recycling options which is not what is at the heart of this proposal.
As pointed out in the most popular report about circular economy developed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation in 2013, recycling should be the last option when aiming to close the loop. Even the European Union in its definition of the waste framework directive has recycling as a step to be taken after prevention of waste and reuse/repair activities. One of the main reasons for this, in our opinion. is that by recycling we only recover materials and energy and not something very valuable: knowledge.
Three elements are used when producing something: materials, energy and information. The latter is included in all the stages of product development: idea, development, manufacturing and launch. This information comes in the form of technical specification, aesthetics, materials information, etc. For example, car tires have materials as rubber that has to comply with specific requirements; energy is also contained in them and not less important, they have information incorporated which is more evident in the design aspects of it. When they are turned into energy we are certainly recovering energy but we are losing both materials and information.
Another example is related to recycling of critical materials contained in electronics. Today we are aiming to recover gold and copper from wasted products by dismantling them and putting these materials through the whole production process again. Dismantling a complex product as tv sets or smartphones to just have access to critical raw materials means wasting energy and knowledge that was invested in the first place in terms of design, technical aspects and functionality. A different story would be if we reuse, remanufacture or refurbish these devices: information and materials would be saved and only some energy would be used in the process.
The circular economy aims to change mindsets, to move from a material-based economy to a value-based society where people satisfy their needs through things, but things are not the needs. The job that things perform is the important feature, what they can do and what people can do with them. As an economist might put it: we have to move from a rivalrous definition of goods to a non-rivalrous one if we want to make the transition. Therefore we need to think about closing the loop by not only saving materials or energy but also information, and maybe adding information to that material/energy base as ecosystems do.
If we focus our efforts on just recycling, we will be losing the information that many people have put in designing and producing products which means wasting time and resources. The right approach from a circular perspective is that of the inner circles as explained by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and many others working and thinking about circular economy.
One of the main reasons why we are talking about the Circular Economy today is because of material insecurity. This term is connected to the fact that many materials that are used in consumer products and things making up our physical world are critical. Different people have raised this issue over the past years and since 2010, the European Union has specifically identified what are these materials.
For the European Union (2014) a material was defined to be critical taking into account two aspects: supply risk and economic relevance. The first one is defined as the concentration of a material supply in a country with poor governance which could lead to unstable supply. The second element depends on the uses of the specific material and how important these uses are to economic mega sectors.
What are the most critical materials from an European perspective and who are the bigger suppliers?
Many of us are not familiar with these names but almost everybody uses something that has some of these materials inside. For example, according to Namibia Rare Earths Inc company only Rare Earths Elements are used in camera lenses, hydrogen storage, electric motors for hybrid cars, color tv screens, shielding in nuclear reactors or steel production. As it can be seen, uses are very different but very relevant for our today's life style. Other critical materials for Europe, that are not that exotic for the common citizen are natural rubber, pulpwood and swan softwood.
According to the European Union there are three groups whose demand is going to grow very strongly in the coming years: niobium, gallium and Heavy REE. Niobium is used as an input in the aviation and aerospace industries (USGS, 2014). Gallium, on the other hand is used in the electronic industry, especially for smartphones and not so high tech uses such as mirrors (USGS, 2013). Heavy REE are used also in a range of applications that you can find here.
Why is material insecurity driving Circular Economy?
If these materials are not readily available in a raw state then where should businesses look for them, one might ask. The obvious answer would be to look at the products that are made of them. So, if we want to reduce the material insecurity of the European industries that use these materials, a transformation needs to be implemented: reduce supply from external sources and replace them within the economic activity.
The answer to these to tasks is given by the Circular Economy and by a circular approach to innovation. Elements such as reuse, remanufacturing and recycling have to be incorporated in the development path that is to be followed for a future where critical raw materials are not a restriction for value creation within society. These approaches reduce use of materials, replace other materials, creates value from non-material activities and allows an economy to work under sustainability principles.
For people working on sustainability issues, the ones concerned about global problems such as climate change, water shortage or biodiversity loss, the Circular Economy is not new. It is the compendium of all the principles and reasoning environmentalists have been discussing for the last 30 years. However people in business, innovation and the entrepreneurship sectors are only starting to see it as a feasible option given the current economic, political and societal trends that scream change (JWT, The circular economy, 2014).
This new interest in the ideas behind the Circular Economy is inspiring because these actors are the main drivers of change in a society, they are the ones that drive systems innovation. Lots of “ink” has been devoted in the last year to define the Circular Economy. And big efforts to translate all the scientific information into a language closer to these new actors have been taken by non profit organisations and consulting firms that see in the Circular Economy as a revolution. Most of this information is directed to big players and consumers but there are two segments that are also an important part of this revolution: Small and Medium Enterprises and Entrepreneurs. Here we address them and present a summary of what the Circular Economy means and the opportunities it creates.
As a starting point here we present the drivers of this new vision of the economic system, based on the summary done by JWT Intelligence (2014), the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2012) and Accenture (2012, 2014):
Other resources: http://www.plan-c.eu/bmix/
I come from a developing country, the one that holds 10% of the world’s biodiversity in just a tiny space of land, so it seemed natural for me to become an environmentalist. I studied economics, environment and development. I became a professional conservationist but always from an integral perspective: helping people protect their environment while enhancing their livelihoods. What I did was helping donors in identifying opportunities to help communities improve their livelihoods while protecting natural resources. I began working on this 10 years ago when legislation support and willingness were on the rise. However, in the last 2 years things have changed and the new government instead of thinking about how to use our resources sustainably, decided that mining and extraction were the best options for achieving development in a country such as mine. Why did they decide that? Well I think it was because commodities became as valuable as gold and that meant lots of money for the economy, and money equals development. Very simple.
In the meantime,, environmentalists working on biodiversity conservation with communities had to deal with an additional threat to biodiversity besides unsustainable livelihood practices: big companies not only looking for oil but also coal, copper and gold. And because of a tragic "coincidence" these minerals seem to be buried exactly under the most diverse and fragile ecosystems.
Besides this, the materials being extracted are not the best for the environment either, given its current state. For example the coal extracted from the Andean mountain range, goes to dirty energy production; gold, well, it goes to the teeth of some eccentric singer who thinks it looks good in his mouth. Not vital at all if I may add. But the consequences of this extraction are permanent both in social and ecological terms.
What could we do, working with extremely limited resources against billion size companies that can come to these remote places and just offer a couple thousand dollars and buy the land from people, increasing their income but forcing them into unhealthy urban settlements that seem to be an indicator of development. In my case, I concluded that not much. If businesses do not understand the importance of the environment, if they keep on just extracting, extracting and dumping and dumping there is not money that can protect ecosystems and communities. At that moment I decided that the economic model needed to really change. A crazy idea, especially in a developing country which is just doing what countries before us did, following the path to development.
I knew something could be done because I have seen how developed countries had been recently recognising their mistakes and are doing something about it so I decided to do some research and I found my master in Industrial Ecology. I had never heard before about the term but what I read in the MIND homepage was exactly what I was looking for: a way our economic model could move from a linear model to a closed loop one. But this is just one of the newer programs and here I want to list all the options curious environmentalists or aware recent graduates have to deeper understand the challenges, opportunities and requirements a transition to a circular economy entails from an industrial ecology perspective:
Master in Industrial Ecology at University of Leiden and TU Delft (MSc), The Netherlands: according to its website this program “trains students in analysis, methodology, design, and implementation of societal activities, with the aim of minimising the environmental impact of these activities while maintaining their functionality”.
Master in Industrial Ecology at Chalmers University of Technology (MSc), Sweden: in the website it is stated that “the program aims to equip students with the competencies, knowledge and tools needed to analyze environmental impacts and resource constraints, to suggest and develop measures and to plan, lead, evaluate and follow up the effects of measures related to for example product development, land and resource use, energy systems, and large-scale urban planning processes.”
MSc in Industrial Ecology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway: as it is presented in its website, the program “focus is on state-of-the-art methods for environmental systems analysis and strategies for policy and management, as well as on the application of such strategies and methods to critical systems.”
Master of Science in Industrial Ecology and the Environment, Mahidol University, Thailand: As it is stated in their home page, “the Programme aims to prepare graduates who have a high competency in industrial ecology and environmental management to meet the demands of industry, government, consultancy and public sectors. It will provide a comprehensive understanding of various facets that comprise industrial ecology, urban ecology, and environmental management, how they interrelate with each other and how integrated approaches are often necessary to achieve the desired results.”
Erasmus Mundus Master in Industrial Ecology, University of Leiden, TU Delft, University of Graz, Chalmers University, Asian Institute of Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology and Waseda University, Europe: the aim of this joint program is “to offer an international and interdisciplinary Master's programme at the highest level, which allows the participants to make an essential contribution to understanding and proposing solutions to problems in order to support the transition towards a sustainable society.”
This is not an exhaustive list but rather a first collection of programs that are already contributing to this transition. Please add any other programs you think need to be mentioned here.