The term “circular economy” first appeared in 1988 as consumers realised mending jeans, cars and appliances costs more than replacing them.
Today, as materials shortages and resource scarcity drive skyrocketing prices, we’re finally seeing the emergence of the circular economy into the mainstream (and it’s paying dividends for early adopters).Put simply, the circular economy is the act of repairing, recycling and reusing products. It is the opposite of the linear economy, the cycle of buy-use-dispose that is piling pressure on the earth’s finite natural resources. Upcycling furniture, buying a refurbished laptop or dropping old clothes into a recycling point are all ways of taking part in the circular economy.
Essentially, adopting this approach could reduce global CO2 emissions by as much as 40% and, by returning nutrients to beleaguered soils and limiting resource extraction, improve biodiversity and mitigate the current strain under which our planet is buckling.
With pressure on manufacturers to decarbonise their operations and processes, a circular economic model offers an effective methodology which simultaneously reduces overheads, improves productivity and enhances brand reputation. So, if circularity brings all these benefits, why isn’t everyone doing it?
A common stumbling block for many businesses is the need to design out waste from existing products and processes. Many manufacturers recoil at the idea of redesigning goods to extend their lifecycle. Add to that the cost of organising return logistics, sorting reusable products, sourcing sustainable materials and components. Unfortunately, a number of businesses fail to see past the initial time, and financial investment.
To look at circularity this way is to fall victim to the short-sightedness that got us here in the first place. For those able to take the long view, there are profits to be made; for the myopic the road is fast running out.
Achieving circularity is itself a task that needs to be a realistic and sustainable objective for any business. It must be a long-term process undertaken carefully and gradually to ensure the value of additional services and products can be realised.
Simply looking at how much energy your machinery is using or the source and composition of the materials you use can immediately throw up areas that could be made more circular.
Another accelerated path to circularity is to identify where value is lost between production, sale, use and disposal and focus on preserving and retaining that value. Furniture’s a great example. The public has been buying pre-loved furniture for years, sometimes it remains in it original form and sometimes it gets “upcycled” and transformed into something new. If we can do this with furniture we can also do it with the fixtures, fittings and building materials.
The good news is that a number of enterprising manufacturers are starting to think in a more holistic way about this problem. A recent project at Sint Oelbert School, Oosterhout, Netherlands, has seen the building’s façade clad in high-resistance plastic shingles, made from recycled PVC and guttering. Closer to home, Kenoteq’s K-Briq, which looks, feels and performs like a normal brick has a construction waste content of 80% helping to use up excess materials and scrap, which would otherwise go to landfill.
I think it’s essential that business owners advocate for, and educate around, the circular economy, what it really means and how we get there. It can be easy to ignore, or overlook, the short-term gains that are in arm’s reach when adopting the principles of circularity, just because it’s going to incur a significant up-front cost. However it’s one that will be worth it in the long run.
Ultimately, if your business objectives are to: reduce spend on materials, lower energy consumption, prioritise repair and refurbishment, comply with environmental legislation, improve productivity and resilience, enhance your brand image and retaining customers post- sale, then your future is undeniably circular. Written by Christian Mabey, Managing Director, Optima Products