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all articles 25. May 2020

Circular Economy: Economic activity based on the model of nature (Interview)

When it comes to sustainable management, the concept of the circular economy is currently a hotly debated and very exciting topic. We talked to Martin Stavenhagen about exactly what circular economy is. 

He is co-founder and director of SD Consulting and works as a policy advisor, researcher and coach/facilitator to support various stakeholders who are active in the field of circular economy and sustainable development. Martin enjoys working with city authorities, companies and young innovators - e.g. via Climate-KIC, Europe's largest climate innovation platform - to strengthen climate protection and sustainable solutions and to advance the creation of an innovative, CO2-neutral society.

What exactly is a circular economy? What is the idea behind it?

Circular economy has to be seen primarily in comparison with the linear economy, the form of economy that is currently being run worldwide. This works on the principle of "take, make, use and lose".

So you take a resource, make a product out of it, use it and then throw it away. This means that the entire value is lost, not only of the resource itself, but also of the workload and energy it consumes.

This waste of resources can be avoided or at least reduced in a circular economy. Natural ecosystems serve as a model. Here, for example, every leaf that falls from a tree becomes a valuable input for another organism. The waste of one organism thus becomes the food of the other. In this sense there is no waste in nature. Resources are part of a cycle.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is considered a leader in the circular economy field, has defined three basic principles:

  1. Waste and pollution are avoided and removed from the system at the design stage. 
  2. Products and materials are kept in circulation as long as possible.
  3. Natural systems are not exploited, but regenerated.

The topic of circular economic activity is currently the subject of increasing discussion. But this is not a completely new concept, is it?

No, it's not a new concept. It has been discussed for many decades.

For example, in the environmental movement of the 1960s, a popular image was that of "Spaceship Earth", which goes back to the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller. This was intended to make it clear that humanity has only limited resources at its disposal. The topic was also extensively discussed in the study "The Limits to Growth", published by the Club of Rome in 1972. 

Climate change and the sustainability agenda 2030 have made the topic much more relevant again and it is now an essential part of the European Green Deal.

The first thing you think of is recycling when you think of the life-cycle of materials. What other possibilities are there?

Recycling is actually only one possibility. Here it is important that materials are not mixed in the manufacture of products in such a way that they cannot be separated after use.

However, it must also be remembered that while the recycling industry keeps materials in circulation for longer, many materials cannot be recycled indefinitely.

In the circular economy, it is primarily a matter of thinking about the life cycle of materials and products from the outset. That they remain in flow as long as possible and that the value of the materials is maintained for as long as possible, as highly as possible.

Other possibilities are therefore to design products in such a way that they as durable as possible, that they can be repaired or that materials from other discarded products are used for production.

For example, old clothes can be used as insulating material, leftover bread for the production of beer, coffee grounds are well suited for the cultivation of mushrooms, and old glass can be used in combination with cement as road surface.

However it is not only about manufacturing new products, but also about rethinking business models. Instead of selling something, you could also hire it out.

Do you have a few examples of how companies are already implementing this?

Philips, for example, offers light as a service. Customers, such as Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, buy light output for an agreed period of time instead of lamps. When the term ends, the customer can extend the contract or return the light sources to Philips.

Another example from the fashion sector is to lend clothes on a subscription basis. For a monthly fee, customers receives three items of clothing of their choice and can wear them as long as they want. When they no longer wish to wear them, they send them back and can borrow other items of clothing.

Can you estimate where we are right now in terms of the implementation of the circular economy? Are we still at the very beginning or are there already solutions that are being implemented?

New research shows that worldwide only nine percent of the resources we use are recycled and reused.

In terms of awareness, however, I already have the feeling that the topic seems to be gaining ground with more people, and also among politicians in some countries. However, the current consumption of resources is definitely not sustainable, even though there are already a number of interesting business models that are moving in this direction - but there are still far too few. 

It is often frustrating that the technical possibilities have actually been around for a long time, but they are not yet being used to the extent that would be necessary.

Even though COVID19 will cause a dent in our CO2 emissions this year for the first time in decades, this has nothing to do with a rethink. The question is whether the current situation can further stimulate the rethinking process.

Do you have any tips on what each individual can do to change their own way of thinking?

First of all, responsibility for the circular economy should not be left to consumers alone. Here, companies and statutory regulations play a decisive role in its implementation.

However, when considering a new acquisition, consumers might ask themselves whether it is really necessary to actually own a new product, and also consider how long or how often they really want to use it.

A drill, which you might only need once a year, could be borrowed from your neighbour. The damaged shoes could probably be repaired. Or instead of buying new clothes, you could go to a second-hand shop. Buying or using something used is always good because the resources are already in circulation.

The circular economy has much to do with cooperation. It is also fun to borrow something and get to know your neighbour or to get a real bargain at the flea market. In this case the value of the product is not only in the material, but also in the story behind it. So something old is perhaps even more valuable than something completely new.

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