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Tina Casey headshot

Making Sense of the Circular Economy


If the name Ellen MacArthur rings a bell, you're probably thinking of the person who set a record for circumnavigating the world in a high tech sailboat, solo no less, but that's not the only circle for which she is known. Ms. MacArthur, through the charitable organization that bears her name, has formulated an economic concept called the circular economy, which is quickly becoming a buzzword around sustainability circles.

As far as buzzwords go, "circular economy" is a fairly pedestrian combination (as opposed to, say, Sex Pistols) and perhaps that's just as well. Rather than getting distracted by the words, it's far more interesting to pick through the concept itself and see how MacArthur's vision of economic growth meets the challenges of a world of shrinking resources.

The Circular Economy

MacArthur was profiled and interviewed just last week on the Harvard Business Review blog by Eric Hellweg, and for those of you who don't have time to read the whole thing (though you really should, it's fascinating), the circular economy concept basically boils down to managing resource scarcity in the context of consumer demand for environmental responsibility.

As described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it comes out like this:

"The circular economy is a generic term for an industrial economy that is, by design or intention, restorative and in which materials flows are of two types, biological nutrients, designed to reenter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality without entering the biosphere."

Why the Circular Economy is more than mere recycling

While the emphasis on reentering and circulating call recycling to mind, MacArthur's concept of a circular economy is on a different plane entirely. The Foundation's website is careful to note the difference by referencing Heather Rogers, journalist and author of Here Today, Garbage Tomorrow:

"One of the biggest confusions around a circular economy framework is that sparked by the word ‘recycling’...'The vast majority of wastes are created during the manufacturing process, and that is where we should focus.'”

Recycling puts the onus on consumers to use goods more carefully and to dispose of the leftovers responsibly. The circular economy asks that manufacturers produce goods that involve less waste in the first place, and that enable consumers to integrate recycling into their daily habits more intensively.

Case studies for the Circular Economy

When you look at the Foundation's case studies, the potentials for economic growth become clear. That's especially true when you consider that "consumers" doesn't just mean individual householders, it also means companies that consume products through their supply chains.

The waste oil sector in England, for example, was historically focused on animal feed until new legislation targeted biofuels. The Yorkshire waste oil processor Brockelsby Ltd. adapted not only by pivoting to the biofuel market, but also by double-purposing its operations as a research and development platform to find new values for low-grade waste products, which normally would be discarded.

Another Foundation case study is Massachusetts-based Digital Lumens, which aims to help industrial customers transition out of the "criminally inefficient" incandescent light bulb into high-efficiency LEDs integrated with an energy management system. The company is transitioning, too, from an equipment sales model to a service-based model that could enable it to reclaim spent or damaged components more efficiently.

One final example is New York's Ecovative, which produces fully compostable bio-based packaging products that stand in for petroleum-based plastics. Ecovative's unique approach is to literally custom-grow its packages using fungi, which has caught the eye of green-transitioning companies like 3M and Dell among others.

Where the rubber hits the circular road

The sustainability foundation of the circular economy is interesting enough in itself, but real proof of the concept's viability is the potential for economic growth.

To buttress the case for the circular economy, the Foundation has begun to issue detailed reports on the economic benefits of transitioning out of "an increasingly resource constrained 'take-make-dispose' model," both in the short term and over the long run.

The first report, in 2011, took a look at the stimulating effect on European Union manufacturing sector from economic activity related to product development, remanufacturing and refurbishment.

The second report just came out in 2013, and it focuses on applying the principles of the circular economy to "fast-moving" consumer goods, namely food, beverages, textiles and packaging, which also happen to account for a good deal of municipal waste while absorbing - and wasting - a significant amount of agricultural output.

[Image: Circle inversion by fdecomite


Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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