Bringing the Circular Economy to life – How does it really work?

by | Aug 31, 2016 | Cir­cu­lar eco­nomy

This is the second part of a two-part series on the Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy. You can read the first part here.

In my first blog, I talked about why a Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy could be a solu­tion to some of the biggest chal­lenges we are facing today through a grow­ing urb­an pop­u­la­tion increas­ing the pres­sure on our planet’s resources, whil­st waste piles up. Let’s now look at what the cir­cu­lar eco­nomy looks like in prac­tice.

The media have recently covered stor­ies that at a first glance do not seem related.

Food waste has been under the spot­light, with the help of a few fam­ous chefs. In the UK, Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­ting­stall fea­tures his War on Waste cam­paign on BBC One. World-wide celebrity chefs grasped the oppor­tun­ity behind the scene of Rio’s Olympic Games, by cre­at­ing a gour­met soup kit­chen, Refet­toRio Gast­ro­mo­t­iv­aby, cook­ing meals for the home­less with the Games sup­pli­ers’ unwanted and excess food.

On the tech­no­logy front and for the first time in his­tory, SpaceX, who launches satel­lites and space sta­tion sup­ply mis­sions, suc­ceeded in land­ing a reusable rock­et on an ocean plat­form after deliv­er­ing an inflat­able hab­it­at into space for NASA. It prom­ises a much less costly future for space flights.

Apple released Liam. Not a new iPhone, but an innov­at­ive robot with 29 arms, who takes apart returned iPhone 6 devices in only 11 seconds to recov­er its pre­cious com­pon­ents, such as alu­mini­um, cop­per, cobalt, gold and sil­ver parts. A prom­ising solu­tion to tackle e-waste for the com­pany that sold over 231m phones in 2015.

So what do these celebrity chefs, NASA and Apple have in com­mon?

An act­ive role in a Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy. Don’t get me wrong, they might not even be aware of the Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy con­cept. Yet each of them, for dif­fer­ent motives, are show­cas­ing how it works. They clearly acknow­ledge the oppor­tun­ity that lies between volat­ile or increas­ing sup­ply prices and ever increas­ing piles of waste. Why should you spend so much for brand new sup­plies, when in fact your industry’s waste has tons of per­fectly good com­pon­ents you could reuse? Why waste tons of food when mil­lions are fam­ished, even in the UK?

So wait, what exactly is a Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy?

The Cir­cu­lar Economy’s rais­on d’etre is to reduce the neg­at­ive eco­nom­ic, social and envir­on­ment­al impacts our cur­rent sys­tem gen­er­ates. Win-win scen­ari­os can be cre­ated by tap­ping into the wealth of resources hid­den in our bins. It reduces the raw mater­i­als needed to launch space rock­ets or to assemble smart phones, sav­ing com­pan­ies and cli­ents money in the pro­cess. In the case of the Chefs, redu­cing food waste can actu­ally tackle food pover­ty. By learn­ing from their les­sons and tips, we can also reduce our own food bill.

The cir­cu­lar eco­nomy pro­poses an altern­at­ive way to make, use and get rid of our things, so they can last longer, have mul­tiple adapt­able uses, and are eas­ily taken apart to recov­er what’s still valu­able in them. Think about what hap­pens in nature, where noth­ing is really lost. The prin­ciples are sim­il­ar here. Have a look at the Ellen MacAr­thur anim­a­tion that explains it, it’s bril­liant. Or the cod fish story, like those sold in our super­mar­kets, as it’s quite enlight­en­ing.

Now, how does it work?

Most people are already famil­i­ar with the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mot­to.

In Peter­bor­ough, we believe there are 7 ways to achieve a cir­cu­lar eco­nomy, the 7R’s.

  1. Rethink We take many things for gran­ted, not really ask­ing ques­tion as to why they are done the way they are. But as cli­ents and con­sumers, it’s our demand that actu­ally shapes the mar­kets, so we have a bit of power in our hands, and we should use it more.So let’s think dif­fer­ently about resources, remem­ber­ing they’re not only mater­i­als and products, but also cap­it­al and people. We can look for more eco­nom­ic­ally viable and sus­tain­able solu­tions for the products and ser­vices that sur­round us.

    For instance, do we need to own all the stuff we’ve got that accu­mu­lates in our gar­ages and cup­boards, likely all for­got­ten about in no time? Drills are used on aver­age 13 minutes in their life­time. Could we lease one when needed, rather than buy it? Par­is and Toron­to are going there, with their “res­sourcer­ie” or Tool Lib­rary.

    As a com­pany, rethink­ing your oper­a­tions pro­cesses might reveal lots of eco­nom­ic oppor­tun­it­ies, just as Brit­ish Sug­ar has. The Wiss­ing­ton plant is a great example of how you can make the most of what you have, even rocks and dirty water. It also makes strong eco­nom­ic sense whil­st decreas­ing the company’s envir­on­ment­al foot­print and boost­ing their image.

  1. Redesign is all about cre­at­ing things that last longer. Things con­ceived to be mod­u­lar, thus easi­er to upgrade, repair, pull apart, reuse and recycle. It is not only sens­ible envir­on­ment­ally; it does make a lot of busi­ness sense. It should also help reverse the pro­grammed obsol­es­cence logic. That is the fact that your pro­duct starts to dys­func­tion right after its war­ranty expires, or forces you to buy a whole new phone when only the bat­tery died and could have been replaced.The best example here is the Fair­phone 2, the first mod­u­lar mobile phone that is eth­ic­ally sourced and made to last, as it is designed for its own­er to upgrade and repair it eas­ily. As any first of its kind, it’s not cheap. Just as expens­ive as the latest smart phones on the mar­ket.

    With their Eco­Design pro­cess, Philips is rely­ing on 6 green innov­a­tion areas that change how they design their products. On top of real­ising sav­ings, the com­pany gen­er­ates new rev­en­ues and boosts its brand’s pop­ular­ity.

    Build­ings can also be redesigned. Icon­ic of our cit­ies’ iden­tit­ies and built to last dec­ades, without any clue on how they’ll actu­ally be used in 10 or 50 years. Using mod­u­lar design that allows for flex­ib­il­ity in our fast-chan­ging times is an emer­ging theme. Arup gave it a thought, if you want to see how our build­ings might look like in a not-too dis­tant future.

  1. Reuse What you don’t want or need any­more can still be very valu­able for oth­ers. This is where we enter the Shar­ing Eco­nomy world that we are all famil­i­ar with, thanks to the likes of Airb­nb. We can all take part in this dynam­ic land­scape, by simply donat­ing stuff, time and know­ledge, or by selling and buy­ing second-hand products.In Peter­bor­ough, we have great examples: Rail­world and its Wild­life Heav­en run thanks to volun­teers and donated items, includ­ing the bridge con­nect­ing the site across the River Nene. Peter­bor­ough Reuse not only diverts a stream of waste from land­fill to cre­ate bags for life, but trains loc­al women in deprived com­munit­ies for that pur­pose. Cross Keys Homes has partnered with Food Cycle to use super­mar­kets food sur­pluses that would oth­er­wise be binned. They train volun­teers to cook healthy meals offered to deprived com­munit­ies.

    Also keep an eye for the upcom­ing Share Peter­bor­ough. An online B2B plat­form where organ­isa­tions can share and source resources such as office items, skills or meet­ing rooms with oth­ers in the city.

  2. Repair Before filling up our bins, we should attempt to repair broken items. This might be chal­len­ging, as we’ve lost many repair skills in recent times. Yet the trend is chan­ging. The rise of repair cafés, with their pos­it­ive social impacts, and bike-doc­tors shows the grow­ing appet­ite for such things.There are oth­er ways to help in fix­ing our stuff. Man­u­fac­tur­ers can share user-guides on how to repair their products eas­ily. As a cus­tom­er, we can learn how to mend our broken items by fol­low­ing online tutori­als.
  3. Reman­u­fac­ture This is an excit­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tun­ity for com­pan­ies. Reman­u­fac­tur­ing means tak­ing back items once they reach their end of life, recov­er­ing the usable com­pon­ents or mater­i­als in them and then pro­du­cing either by-products, detach­able items or new ones with the recovered mater­i­als. Take-back schemes and leas­ing rather than buy­ing products offer great incent­ives for both busi­nesses and their cli­ents.Cater­pil­lar is a great loc­al example, with Per­kins Engines design­ing for reman­u­fac­tur­ing since 1973.
  4. Recycle The most fam­ous R of all. We all know it exists, wheth­er we do it or not. And it’s still a very import­ant part of the cir­cu­lar eco­nomy. Yet it’s not the thing we should be doing first, but rather last. If your items can’t be repaired, reused or reman­u­fac­tured, then it’s time to recycle, and only then. Lots of every­day items can be recycled includ­ing paper, plastic, metals or elec­tron­ic items. Food too, to become com­post, fuel or energy. All of us can do it, no mat­ter where we are.Some com­pan­ies are also fully embra­cing the recyc­ling path, such as Coca Cola and their new 100% recycled bottles – bottles made out of recycled mater­i­al and by-plant products. The com­pany goes a bit fur­ther, involving reg­u­lat­ors and ask­ing them for a “leap of faith” in cir­cu­lar eco­nomy to over­come legis­lat­ive bar­ri­ers in such innov­at­ive approaches.
  5. Recov­er – Not as fam­ous as recyc­ling, recov­er­ing should be the very last option. It basic­ally con­sists of burn­ing waste to turn it into energy. It is quite con­tro­ver­sial, as it requires strict sort­ing of waste to avoid burn­ing stuff that would be much more valu­able in the pre­vi­ous reuse, reman­u­fac­ture or recycle loops.In Peter­bor­ough, we have our own Energy Recov­ery Facil­ity. Run by Viridor, it diverts 90% of resid­ual house­hold waste from land­fill and provides energy to 15,000 homes in the city. The facil­ity accepts com­mer­cial waste too.

Is that it? Well, almost.

You’re right. It will take some time to achieve a full trans­ition, and it won’t be a smooth jour­ney as chan­ging mind-sets is a chal­lenge. It will require edu­ca­tion­al sup­port at all ages and a trust in open data and new tech­no­logy as great ena­blers. The poten­tial is there, and the prom­ising bene­fits and val­ues are start­ing to flour­ish.

Whil­st many people will tell you that Cir­cu­lar Eco­nomy needs to be triggered by pion­eers from the private sec­tor, each of us can actu­ally play our part in the 7Rs wheel, both at home and at work.

There are many oth­er examples to illus­trate each R. If you’re already doing any­thing along these lines or know of people and organ­isa­tions that are, no mat­ter how they’re call­ing or labelling their pro­jects, please do let us know. Map­ping Peterborough’s diverse cir­cu­lar actions is a strong first step to achieve our ambi­tious Cir­cu­lar Peter­bor­ough goal.