Imagine a world without waste. Where every product we buy and every tool we use in our lifetime – every plastic bottle, every pair of pants, every convertible car, even – has its own regenerating afterlife. Right now, a diffuse band of innovators across the globe are laying the building blocks of the circular economy, an entirely new and revolutionary model that will leave our everyday lives looking, well, very similar, actually.
The circular economy isn’t about forcing us into violent shifts with the products we use, or how we spend our money and time. Yet still it has the capacity to deliver us a world ripe with new possibility and opportunity, for everyone.
Currently, we have a linear economy. A product is made, we buy it, then we discard it. It has been this way since more or less forever. But it was a system we chose, or fell into, before there was any need to worry about the fact that natural resources are finite. We’re now some way beyond that point. We’re at a juncture in human history where we need to admit that the things we use to make other things are running out, and more than that, our production methods are creating a volume of human waste that is choking the planet. We need to change the way we think of consumption and use. . . This is where the circular economy comes in.
The design of a circular economy eliminates waste from the process. Using manufacturing techniques that are advanced, but with us now, any truly circular product can be recycled back into the raw materials from which it was first made.
A bonus side effect of designing products that are intended to be recycled and reused, is that these products will be better. Because the raw materials used in these products will retain financial value, there is a wide scope for them to be better straight off the bat. We’ll have products made with materials that are stronger, more flexible, chemically purer and more luxurious. “If companies know that they’ll be getting their raw materials back, there’s more chance they’ll use more expensive materials in the first place,” explains Johann Bödecker, the founder and CEO of Pentatonic. “Where today we might use a cheap plastic, like polycarbonate, in car design, tomorrow we could use something like polyether ether ketone (PEEK). At the moment, it’s only used in luxury watches because it’s way more expensive, but PEEK has mechanical properties that allow for far more elegant and radical design.”
There are obvious benefits to a circular economy. Higher quality goods, less trash in the streets, a better cared for planet, era-defining design innovations and huge employment opportunities. But to get you really excited, there's tennis. . .
A Material Revolution
That changed the game
When aluminium was first widely used in manufacturing, it was in aviation and shipbuilding, as well as in everyday consumer items. But where it was a literal game changer, was tennis. Racquets had been until then made from wood, forcing the player to sacrifice either hitting area or lightness, making the game slow, difficult and unpopular. That was until aluminium was used for racquets: lighter, larger and easier to hit a ball with.
As a result, the quality and excitement of professional tennis grew. Its popularity increased, to the point where today millions of people follow the sport fanatically – all of which can be traced back to advances in aluminium extrusion in the 1920s. “Things like that are really hard to predict,” says Johann, “but when something’s dramatically more efficient, there’s a butterfly effect that ends up enabling and enriching everything.”
SO, HOW DO WE GET TO CIRCULAR?
Almost all the key thinkers on the subject are putting their faith in an ongoing alignment of industry standards, political directives and the basic power of people’s wallets. Take the example of single-use plastics. The four biggest UK supermarkets have pledged to stop offering bags made out of them in stores. The EU is looking to clamp down heavily on single-use and microplastics with taxes and bans respectively. Meanwhile, the impact of cultural phenomena like Blue Planet II and media coverage of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” mean that on a social level, we all seem to be waking up to the damage plastics are doing to our oceans. Though low quality disposables often remain the cheaper option, the earliest waves of circular products are available in the marketplace now. When you have the option, buy circular. If you don’t have the option, demand it! Purchase power is a crucial part of the equation for change.
It might seem like a mammoth task, but movement is going on in all three of those key areas and besides, how long did it take us to cover the world in internet? In 2005, a touch over a billion people had access. Last year, that number was put at over 3.5 billion, more than half the world’s population. If we can do that – and if we can put a million people on Mars, as Elon Musk is intent on doing by the 2060s – why can’t we switch to circular? (It goes without saying that any Mars economy will be a circular one. You can’t spend billions flying something all the way up there only to chuck it in the bin once you’re done with it. Even Elon’s rockets are built for repeat use.)
In fact, one of the encouraging things about a circular model of production is its scale. While it is noble indeed for people to form and operate their own crafts-based, no-plastics, artisan micro-economies, ultimately the world needs a wider solution to a problem that is global, and for human beings unavoidably existential. The simple truth is that there aren’t enough naturally occurring materials to support the number of us there are in the world now, let alone the 9.8 billion of us the UN predicts there will be by 2050.
Arriving at the bottom line, thoughts inevitably turn to the fat cats, the money pigs, the oil dinosaurs who seem to want to burn the walls of the world to keep out the cold. But the shift to circular presents a golden moment for those guys too, one that corporate thought leader William McDonough describes as “the largest business opportunity ever seen by our species,” and that other experts estimate as having multi-trillion-dollar potential.
For businesses, the circular model is profitable. For consumers, it’s desirable. For governments, it’s a priority. For everyone, it seems logical, responsible, exciting and progressive. More than that, it’s optimistic, and optimism is a quality that has seemed in short supply in recent times. But there’s no reason why that has to be the case. While it’s clear that on some profound level humans are causing problems to the planet, Earth has never been home to a species with such an aptitude for solving them. A switch to a circular economy would represent a real tectonic shift in the battle to solve the biggest problem we have faced so far.