Circular Economy #3: Why we need to look at the production cycle as an ecosystem that requires constant replenishment

By Tierney Smith  

The Circular Economy uses biological materials that once exhausted can be returned safely to the natural world. It exploits technological materials that can be kept within the system at high quality and used again. And again. And again.

So far this week, we have described the major principles which make up the Circular Economy (CE) and suggested how we could go about putting this concept into action.

Circular Economy #1: Why it’s time to ditch our linear vision of growth

Circular Economy #2: How can we plan to re-use waste?

We now understand a major transformation is needed in the way we think about design, both in terms of products and systems.

In the final part of our series on the CE, we bring these principles together and suggest a way to deliver change on an industrial level.

We need to imagine the design and manufacturing process as part of an ecosystem.

In the same way insects, plants and larger mammals provide vital services to each other, so businesses in the CE should work more closely – sharing and exchanging resources.

No company can work in isolation – and one man’s waste can be another’s raw materials.

Just as in nature, all aspects of the circular economy will be reliant on one another (Source: Gary Robson/Creative Commons)

The complexity of our production systems mean that multiple players feed into each widget and service that we use. Each of these players will be involved in ensuring the success of the CE.

Effective cross-chain and cross-sector collaboration are imperative for the establishment of a circular system.

Transparency and the establishment of industry-wide standards will help fuel the product development and infrastructure management needed.

Supply line clarity is also key, so that those companies who trade goods can be fully aware of every component and material which goes into the products they sell.

To an extent all these criteria are already being implemented around the world. On RTCC we have recently covered the importance of environmental reporting and worldwide standardisation.

But they are vital – and here’s why. Take the device you are reading this article on.

Various companies will be responsible for the plastic covering, screen, software, electronics and the online or wifi connection to the internet.

Each provider must take into account the requirements of the others contributing to the appliance.

And this does not simply apply to electronics. For example the One Planet Architecture Institute’s latest project is a Town Hall that will be leased on the performance basis.

The complexity of the Town Hall – as with any building – means many players will feed into the system.

The building itself, the office furniture, the computer systems, the carpets, the lighting and the energy, to name just a few, will all come from different companies across a range of industries.

If just one aspect of this does not live up to the quality controls and the sustainability standards expected by the customer then the whole building will fail.

With just one company having ownership of this building, and being responsible if anything goes wrong – it’s in their best interests to make sure that all their suppliers and contractors are working to the same standards.

Here’s what Douwe Jan Joustra from One Planet Architecture Institute says about their project:

“Many of our products are so complex that a lot of producers are involved. So we and they have to get it organised.

“We are working now on a building to be built on a service contract. So the community will not buy the New City Hall but they have a service contract which says they will get good working places provided by one of the building manufacturers.

“But a building in the most part is a complex process of a lot of different contractors. So what you will see is there a whole new range of contracting between all these providers to get, as much as possible, the responsibility of the product and of the materials in the right place. So we will need a new set of arrangements between companies.”

On a micro level it’s obvious. So why not try and implement this on a macro level?

Five points to take away

– The CE is not about small changes. It is about the major transformation and it will involve innovation and transformation in all aspects of the economy.

– The CE is not about designing with waste, but it is about designing out waste. We need to begin to design for disassembly so valuable materials do not end up in landfill. They must be used again – and again and again.

– The CE will need to be fuelled by renewable energy. It will need abundant energy to ensure that materials can be kept to high quality to be used again, and the way to ensure a reliant and safe supply is through using natural, solar energy to drive the change.

– The move to the CE will have to include cross industry collaboration. With such a large transformation, no company can work in isolation, and one company’s waste could in the CE become another’s resource.

– We must learn from nature for the CE – both about working within closed loops, giving real value to our goods and services and the resilience of the abundance.

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