Circular economy #1: Why pollution, resource depletion and climate change tell us it’s time to ditch our linear vision of growth

By Tierney Smith

What lessons can we take from our natural world to redesign our own economy? (Source: NASA)

We live a linear way of life.

Resources are extracted from the earth, products are created and when we are bored of these goods – or they are broken – we generally send them to landfill or burn them.

This eats into the finite resources of the planet, leaves vast amounts of discarded waste material – and it is becoming obvious that this is an unsustainable way of life.

Faced with uncertainty over employment, financial crises, rising prices for energy and materials, growing populations, scarcity of water and food and increased climate change some people are looking for an alternative.

For many the solution is to create a circular economy (from here on I will refer to this as CE) which is one which is by design restorative.

It would use biological materials that once exhausted could be returned safely to the natural world. It would exploit technological materials that could be kept within the system at high quality and used again. And again. And again.

When I put it like that it seems fairly straightforward.

But to transform a ‘linear’ way of life and bend it into the ‘circular’ will involve a major transformation of the way we design, make, use and dispose of things – as well as how we fund them.

No easy task – but since the release of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report ‘Towards the Circular Economy’ in January 2012 it is a concept which is increasingly taking hold.

The UK think tank Green Alliance has launched their own task force looking at the issue, while the Aldersgate Group, an influential business group promoting climate friendly measures, released their own report last month looking at the economic resilience of the circular economy. So what are its defining principles?

Learning from nature

While our systems work on a linear basis, the earth has been functioning for billions of years in a circular fashion. In the environment there is no landfill and materials continue to circulate within the cycle.

One species’ waste is another’s food. Energy is provided to the earth’s systems is a safe, clean way from the sun. When plants and animals die they are absorbed into the earth to be recycled.

What if our way of living could look more like this?

The circular model is a biomimetic (life-imitating) approach – taking nature as an example for our own systems.

There are five basic principles from this used in the circular economy. Firstly the CE works on the principle that waste is food – both the biological and technical aspects should be re-purposed.

Secondly is the principle that diverse systems are resilient systems. To make this happen, thirdly, the energy of the system must come from renewable sources.

Fourthly price must tell the truth – nature is not paid with money but with result and in a similar way our prices should reflect the real cost of our activity.

Finally we must think in terms of systems over components. In nature all of the interdependencies feed into and benefits from one another – and our own systems should reflect this idea.

Douwe Jan Joustra from One Planet Architecture Institute – an Amsterdam based firm working closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “There are some basic principles from the way that nature functions that we can learn and that we should take into account when we start developing the CE.

“For instance closing the cycles, we tend to think that this is a very simple process – we can identify the cycles and we can make the cycles – but when you look at nature you can see that it is a very complex system of enormous amount of cycles and interdependencies and we need to learn how to use that idea in our economy.”

The use of renewable energy

Renewable energy will be vital to the transition to the low carbon economy. To make sure that the components of our economy can continue to circulate in the same way and with the same quality, large amounts of energy will be needed.

By using energy from nature to fuel a new system, it will decrease resource dependency and increase resilience against shocks.

Our current systems that rely on fossil fuels are based on centralised systems built on high-density energy. The multiple linkages of this system make it inefficient. The CE aims to shift to a new, more efficient energy system powered by the sun – including solar energy itself, wind, and wave and to a lesser extent geothermal.

Douwe Jan Joustra: “When we want to have materials and want to keep the materials in the quality we have them then we need to have energy. When it comes to the CE we will need quite a lot of energy to keep all the materials on the level of quality that you want, otherwise decay will start.

“We need clean energy, renewables, and so energy by the sun. The sun every moment of the day brings about 9000 times more energy to Earth than we need to keep our whole system going. The problem is we are not yet able to harvest that energy that we can use it in our existing system.”

Tomorrow: How can we design the circular economy?

Related Video: The principles of the circular economy, courtesy of the The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

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