What is a circular economy?
Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits.
A circular economy entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. (source: EllenMacArthur Foundation)
The circular infographic
The infographic below visualises how a circular economy works, including its actors, connections and design strategies (source: greatrecovery.co.uk)
The concept of the circular economy is built upon several major frameworks and schools of thought.
Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle design perceives the safe and productive processes of nature’s ‘biological metabolism’ as a model for developing a ‘technical metabolism’ for industrial materials. All products can be designed for continuous recovery and reutilization as biological or technical nutrients within these metabolisms. (source: cradletocradle.com)
Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. (source: biomimicry.org)
The performance economy advocated ‘service-life extension of goods – reuse, repair, remanufacture, upgrade technologically’ philosophies as they apply to industrialised economies. (source: Wikipedia)
The blue economy combines seemingly disparate environmental problems with open-source scientific solutions based upon physical processes common in the natural world, to create solutions that are both environmentally beneficial and which have financial and wider social benefits. (source: theblueeconomy.org)
Industrial ecology (IE) is the study of material and energy flows through industrial systems. The global industrial economy can be modelled as a network of industrial processes that extract resources from the Earth and transform those resources into commodities which can be bought and sold to meet the needs of humanity. Industrial ecology seeks to quantify the material flows and document the industrial processes that make modern society function. (source: Wikipedia)
“Natural capital” refers to the world’s stocks of natural assets including soil, air, water and all living things. In this global economy, business and environmental interests overlap, recognising the interdependencies that exist between the production and use of human-made capital and flows of natural capital. (source: EllenMacArthuer Foundation
How it works in practice
Circular design often refers to the definition of eco-design. As it is defined in the research project Ecodesigncircle that teaches to promote circular design thinking into practice, it is a systematic and comprehensive creative approach to products and services, employing improved product and service-design to minimise their environmental impact across the entire lifecycle – from the extraction of raw materials to production, distribution, and use – all the way to recycling, “reparability”, and disposal. The use of energy-efficient and eco-friendly resources is certainly an important aspect, but the concept of eco-design goes beyond this. It is a holistic approach, keeping in view environmental, social and economic benefits as well as aesthetically appealing and durable design.
The circular economy keeps a very special view on materials, their selection, and processing at the last stage of life. Materials are part of biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials (such as cotton or wood) are designed to feed back into the system, or they are part of technical cycles, where recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling takes place.
A built environment that is designed in a modular and flexible manner, sourcing healthy materials that improve the life quality of the residents and minimize virgin material use. It will be built using efficient construction techniques and will be highly utilized thanks to shared, flexible and modular spaces and housing. Components of buildings are maintained and renewed when needed, while buildings will be used where possible to generate, rather than consume, power and food by facilitating closed loops of water, nutrients, materials, and energy, to mimic natural cycles.
Fashion industry keeps one of the highest negative impact on the social and environmental side due to increase in demand for textile fibers and consumption. With this outlook in view, it is even worse than in 8 out of 10 cases these pieces are simply discarded in the waste without being reused or recycled. Dr. Anna Brismar defined “Circular fashion” as clothes, shoes or accessories designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.
The topic of food in the circular economy requires very special understanding, as it directly connects biological cycle. In this area, circular economy tackles wasteful food overproduction and loss, requires improving farming practices, for instance, by using organic fertilizer and making storage and packaging more efficient. Another perspective is to promote local production and avoid soil and nutrition exploitation. Supermarkets play a key role in circular economy actions relating to food. These businesses have been accused of enabling food waste by overstocking shelves (often linked to consumer expectations) and wasting surplus food given procedures around best before labeling and re-stocking.
Cities are predestined to promote the transition to a circular economy and to benefit from the social, ecological and economic developments. On a city level, it is important to focus on the impact of social metabolism of a circular economy. The most powerful way to enhance the adaptability of systems is to connect their inputs, outputs, and information, and create conditions in which they can respond to changing stresses. As cities adopt programs such as local food waste composting, and encourage local remanufacturing, their systems become less vulnerable to national and global disruptions, and the income generated stays in the community.