Student Intern Column: Get Your Gears Turning About the Circular Economy

Nasturtium Droplet
“Nasturtium Droplet” by Flickr user Kevin Krejci. The photographer writes: “According to a display at the San Francisco Exploratorium, tiny surface structures make these nasturtium leaves water-resistant. The uneven surface creates air pockets between water and leaf, so water rolls right off, taking dirt with it. Research on such small-scale surfaces has inspired revolutionary new materials, including water-resistant fabrics. This is an example of biomimicry.” (CC BY 2.0)

Jackson Webster is a junior studying Environmental Science with certificates in Computer Science and Engineering for Energy Sustainability. He began his internship with the Office of Sustainability in the summer of 2018 as a member of the Green Office team, which consults with campus offices to provide sustainability resources for UW–Madison employees. Jackson is interested in developing sustainable technologies such as renewable energy systems and smart clothing. He is a lover of music and kayaking.

Pollution in all forms has become an exponential threat to the ecological systems on which we rely. Anthropogenic activity is depleting resources, raising global temperatures, and acidifying the oceans, which puts ecological and human health at risk. In fact, “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution,” according to a Cornell research survey.

Many individuals now make a concerted effort to shop locally, purchase more fuel-efficient cars, and “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Governments have implemented taxes to ban or limit plastic bags and straws, and created subsidies to incentivize the use of renewable energy. While such actions are beneficial, however, the problems persist. This is because the real cause of pollution is not irresponsible consumers; instead, it’s the linear economic model on which modern industry runs.

In the linear economic model, businesses turn raw materials into products that are used for a finite time—often mere seconds—and then disposed. Consider the last snack you purchased. Did you also acquire packaging material that you will never use again, may not be recyclable, and will not decompose for another 500 years? Are you now responsible for that waste? The answer is probably yes, and this is the principal issue with the linear economic model: it largely defers the responsibility of waste and pollution to consumers and governments. While most businesses work to maximize their profits, environmental impacts associated with product disposal and emissions are often an afterthought. The consumer must spend time and money to recycle or repurpose materials, if there is even a path to do so.

Trash bins
Trash and recycling bins on the UW-Madison campus.

The point is, placing responsibility on individuals to figure out what to do with their waste once it inevitably exists is not a practical way to limit pollution and create a sustainable future. Instead, reducing pollution requires a change at the system level: a shift away from the current make-take-dispose linear model, towards an alternative called the “circular economy.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a global thought leader on the subject, defines the circular economy as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.” A circular economy involves designing waste and toxic chemicals out of the system, extending product life through reuse and restoration, and regenerating natural systems. In this way, a circular economy is essentially a reflection of how the living world works, as each output is reused so that it becomes an input.

In a circular system, products are designed to be disassembled, repaired, or upgraded, and their packaging is compostable. Single-use products do not exist. This model becomes possible when consumers engage in contracts with businesses based on product performance. This not only reduces consumption and subsequent pollution, but also generates improved customer convenience, choice, and loyalty. Take a look at Figure 1 below: the longer time a product spends in the inner circles, the less energy and resources it demands. This model has the potential to solve the waste problem, regenerate natural systems, and drive value creation for businesses and consumers.

Figure 1: Circular Economics graphic
Figure 1: Circular Economics graphic, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Let’s consider a specific example. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation conducted a study in Europe on mobile phones and found that in a transition scenario in which 50% of used devices are collected, market-wide savings on manufacturing material costs could add up to USD 1 billion (~30% of total industry material input costs).

The circular economy draws from Walter Stahel‘s “cradle to cradle” concept, in which nature’s “biological metabolism” serves as an inspiration for how to design society’s “industrial metabolism.” This is a form of “biomimicry”—the idea that our industrial materials should work in a cycle like materials in the natural world do. Circular economics is also inspired by the performance economy model, built on the tenets of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, waste prevention, and the importance of selling services rather than products. You can read more about these schools of thought here.

Despite its clear economic and environmental benefits, the transition towards a circular economy is a gradual process, as collaboration with producers, consumers and infrastructure is the only way to build a system with benefits throughout society. According to World Economic Forum’s Dominic Waughray, economic gain will only be realized if multiple businesses, supported by policy makers, make the transition away from a linear model: “A large-scale, business-led collaboration is required.” Fortunately, companies like Google, Nike, and Phillips have begun to make partnerships that shift their business models from linear to circular.

To end this discussion where it started, the responsibility of users (consumers) to account for environmental impacts while purchasing is greatly reduced in a circular economy, and so is pollution. The make-take-dispose economic model is not sustainable, and a system-wide solution that accounts for the social, economic, and environmental impacts of our actions is required. To support the transition, consumers must consider the life-cycle of a good before it is purchased. Individuals who have the passion, time, and resources should support firms who embrace a circular model, and be vocal about the concept when pollution, or sustainability in general, come up in conversation. Circular economics has taken root with people, and there are countless organizations, businesses, and academics perpetuating the idea.

If you want to learn more, the Nelson Institute is hosting a talk on Thursday, March 7 from 4:30-6:00 titled “Business not as usual: Stewards of a sustainable circular economy”; you can find more information here. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was the primary information source for this column and have published a multitude of reports on the circulatory economy; visit their website to learn more.