Circular Economy: A Sustainable Future for Our Planet
Saba is a Caribbean Island so small that you’ve probably haven’t heard of it. Its population is slightly higher than the number of people who have successfully rowed across an ocean – more of this later – but way fewer than the number who have scaled Everest. Its capital is Bottom. The local volcano, Mount Scenery, takes up much of the island’s surface area and is the highest peak in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Saba’s respected medical school counts my brother, Anthony, among its professors.
The Circular Economy
Anthony understands some very complex physiological systems. He also introduced me to the Circular Economy concept, which even I could grasp. Freshmen on the faculty’s 4-year curriculum often arrive laden with kit because they know there aren’t many shops. Meanwhile, graduating students and dropouts, of whom there are many, had everything they needed but tossed it away because they don’t want to ship it home. What a waste! The solution is so simple that you’ve already joined the dots, and you’re right, graduating students are encouraged to sell off their kit to the new arrivals. They even have a dedicated warehouse.
Isolating a system like this to a remote island makes it obvious what to do. My brother introduced me to the term “Circular Economy” which I now see growing in prevalence as society seeks new ways to protect finite resources. Although there are many well embedded examples of circular economies, the idea is not a natural fit with the “take, make, dispose” culture that has led to an unsustainable level of consumption and waste. The energy transition is a tough sell if people are told what they can’t have. Circular models can be part of the solution to a more sustainable world.
What is A Circular Economy?
A circular economy systematically prevents materials from ever becoming waste. In any given industry, it starts at the design stage.
When implemented effectively, products and materials are kept in use through processes including maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture and recycling. The aim is to decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.
Watch an excellent explanation of circular systems for technical and biological resources by Dame Ellen MacArthur, conqueror of oceans.
Durable, Reusable, and Recyclable Products
While companies like our friends at N2S work brilliantly to apply a circular model to corporate electronic waste, a pure circular economy requires input at the design phase. From automobiles to wind turbines to construction, manufacturers are legally required to demonstrate how materials can be easily recovered or elements reused at the end of the lifecycle.
It is also important to maintain value. An operational auto engine or cell phone (or trading turret) is far more valuable than its component parts or raw materials. Timely maintenance can keep value in the system better than refurbishment, which in turn is better than recycling, but all three levels contribute. There is growing demand from consumers for this approach. Fairphone in Europe and Teracube in the US have developed modular, repairable cell phones that allow for 10-year ownership models. At end-of-life, Fairphones can be returned to the maker in return for vouchers.
Waste prevention starts with the use of reclaimed materials and components during manufacture. This can be “closed loop”, where resources go back to the manufacturer. Examples include steel offcuts being returned to the foundry or chicken poo being used to heat chicken sheds. Alternatively, one industry’s waste can become a resource for another. Examples include tire shreds being used in US construction and excess data center heat being used to keep public buildings warm in Dublin.
Packaging waste is slowly being addressed. In FMCG we see a greater use of recycled, recyclable and reduced packaging, refill schemes and a return of bottle deposits. There is packaging in heavy industry too. Pallet related schemes in the UK and Australia aim to massively reduce waste in different ways.
A circular economy aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible. As professional services become more digitized and companies adopt Cloud hosted subscription solutions, there is less hardware on company sites and the onus is on suppliers to be sustainable. Our blog last year showed how the biggest data center companies are meeting this challenge relatively well. Despite huge growth and a dependency on finite resources, the sector’s big players are moving swiftly towards circular models.
Patagonia is a headline act in the circular economy world, and it has B Corp status to back this up. A final aspect of the circular economy is to support human communities and natural ecosystems. Patagonia makes waterproof clothing from old fishing nets and other reclaimed materials. It encourages lifetime ownership, offers free repairs and will pay you to trade in old clothes for resale in the Worn Wear section.Profits went up as these initiatives were introduced but owner Yvon Chouinard gave away the company – and his billionaire status – to a not for profit in 2022 so it could raise money for community and environmental programs.
Marketers pitch circular “As a service” models differently to consumers but there are many which allow items to be accessed rather than owned. It’s amazing what can be rented these days, and in many cases, it saves money, space and resources. If you only use an item occasionally or only need it for a while, do you really need to own it forever? A boat for example?
I guess you spotted the clues. In 2025 I’ll be rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic from The Canary Islands to Antigua with my son Elliot and friend Kevin, who’s mad enough to be doing it for a second time. True to the circular economy, our boat has also made the trip before, which sounds like a solid stress test to me. It turns out it’s the first boat of this type I ever saw; it was moored in Antigua when I saw it on vacation and the seed of this epic adventure was planted in my head. A good proportion of transatlantic rowing boats are reused and ours is already lined up for more voyages post 2025. You will hear much more about this challenge and the charities we’re supporting over the coming months. At the time of writing the start line is still 537 days away but it won’t be long until we can say “It starts next year.”
Look out for our progress over the coming months and contact me if you want to support an awesome cause.