Circular Economy: definition & examples

Hi, Alex here. Today’s video is about circular economy. It is a term we hear a lot these days and I was asked many times to make a video about it so here it is. I will explain what we mean by circular economy, I will go through all the things we can do to go from our current economy to a circular one and I will use many examples. At the end I will also share a very good book if you want to learn more. You’ll see… there is a lot more to it than just recycling. Ok, let’s get drawing!

When my son was 3 years old and asking his mummy what was this “circular economy” thing she was working on, here is what she told him: it is when everything is healthy food for something else. So simple and sweet. I love it! In other words, it means running the economy like nature runs its own business: plants use carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow and produce oxygen. Animals use oxygen and create carbon dioxide and nutrients. Nothing is wasted. It is a closed loop system. Circular economy is generally opposed to the linear economy (take-make-waste) we have been running for many years. Some people also use the term cradle to cradle as opposed to cradle to grave.

As explained in our triple bottom line video, the economy is part of society which is part of the environment. Click in the top right corner here to watch it. Now, let’s look at the economy! We can split into two categories the things that we need to run into closed loops: technical and biological materials.

Technical materials have this typical life cycle: raw materials are mined, the product is manufactured, then it is transported, then it is used until the end of its life. We often tend to think about the end of life and the importance of recycling and this is true. But for our economy to be circular, there are many things we can do before the end of life. It starts with using resources that are already extracted. Say my product needs copper, it is best to “mine” copper that is not used anymore (what we also call post-consumer) as opposed to mining some new one from the ground. Especially when you know that: 1) Copper is predicted to be mined out worldwide by 2040 and 2) processing recycled copper uses only 10 to 20% of the energy it takes to process new copper from virgin ore. When manufacturing my product, I can design it so it can easily be dismantled and the copper can easily be recycled next time. I can also manufacture my product so it lasts a long time, so it can be maintained and repaired. I can design it so it uses as little energy as possible. This TED video uses the great example of a tea kettle and the fact that, during commercial break of a popular TV show, England has to buy nuclear power from France because millions of people go to the kitchen at the same time to boil an entire 2-liter kettle to make one cup of tea. Once a product cannot be used anymore, then it needs to be collected and recycled. Here comes an important question: Does the recycled material maintain its quality to be used for similar applications, or is it “down-cycled” into a material that has a poorer quality? (“down-cycled” was a term from the book “cradle to cradle”, you can find a link in the description below). Remember, in a circular economy, everything is healthy food for something else so nothing goes to landfill.

Biological materials are farmed or collected, then possibly processed and transported before reaching the consumer. Once consumed, they can be used to create biogas, biochemicals or be composted. Finally, they can go back to nature to restore it. But again, in a circular economy, nothing goes to landfill.

Two transition strategies can be very helpful as we are trying to create a circular economy: substitution and dematerialization. Substitution is about using different resources to achieve the same goal. For instance, the world is running out of lithium so unless we can recycle lithium batteries more efficiently, Sodium-Ion batteries might be a better option for car manufacturers in the future.

Dematerialization refers to using less of a resource to serve the same economic function in society. For instance, Interface is the world’s largest designer and maker of commercial modular carpet. But they don’t sell the carpet anymore, their customers buy the service of having carpet on their floor. Interface is in charge of maintaining and repairing the carpet and they do that very efficiently because it is their specialty and they control the entire process. Using tiles, they can replace only the ones that need replacing. The old tiles go back to the factory to be recycled where new tiles are made with 98% recycled or bio-based content. How is that for almost circular?

Of course, creating a circular economy is only one piece of the sustainability puzzle and many other aspects have to be taken into account to get 100% sustainable (climate change, sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, social sustainability, etc.).


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