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What is a circular economy and how is it beneficial?

By June 14th, 2020No Comments

Kynance, Cornwall. Photo by Jess Fishburn

What is a circular economy and how is it beneficial?


by Blue Flectcher/15th-June-2020

 

Since the industrial revolution, the global economy has followed the mantra: take, make and waste consistently throughout all industries.

This way of life has spread our finite resources thin, as it was recently recorded that the worlds leverage of natural resources per year has reached over 100 billion tons for the first time ever. With predictions for our future use continuing to rise to 170-184 billion tonnes by mid-century. However, our extensive consumption is not the only issue as 2 billion tonnes of those resources are discarded as waste at the end of their lifecycle – 1.3 billion tons stemming from the food industry.

throw away world

Global waste forecast. Source: The Economist

This calls for a major shift in our lifestyles, whether it’s the alteration of our production lines or our personal awareness of sustainability.

 

To overcome these issues the circular economy concept has been introduced and integrated into many businesses, shifting the system to conform to the limitations of our planet. Designing out waste and pollution, this model aims to keep products and materials in use, elongating their lifespan whilst also regenerating natural systems.

This updated mindset focuses on reducing our overall pollution, viewing waste as a design flaw, utilising innovative materials and technologies to prevent left-over rubbish. Alongside this, businesses are encouraged to design new products and components with sustainability in mind, considering their ability to be reused, repaired and remanufactured in the future.

 

The Circular Process. Source: Horizon 2020

A detailed outline of a circular economy. Source: The Ellen McArthur Foundation

Another quality of importance is the reconstruction of our natural resources, as we must acknowledge our ecosystems by providing them with sufficient nutrients to flourish for as long as possible.

This sustainable outlook will bring huge benefits not only to our environment but also for our financial longevity. One of the most profound issues that come alongside our linear economy is greenhouse gas emissions and the significant use of raw materials.

The circular economy aims to solve this by using renewable energy, that is far less harmful to the environment than fossil fuels, making it possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030.

This shift would differentiate from our traditional ways of agricultural optimisation, focusing on the quality of our goods rather than quantity. Our farming culture would face a systematic change with focus turning towards the quality of the soil, ultimately the quality of produce.

A circular model would ensure that vital nutrients are reinstated back to the earth through anaerobic processes (Anaerobic processes are typically used for the treatment of waste, the decomposition of organic and inorganic matter in the absence of oxygen) or composting.

This, therefore, creates a continuous process as the natural waste produced by humanity will be returned to the soil, reducing the exploitation of our natural ecosystems. Alongside this the economy will also reap financial benefits, if you factor in the current costs surrounding global soil degradation (the physical, chemical and biological decline in soil quality) that amount to $40 billion per anum, the shift in systems make complete sense.

How does anaerobic digestion work?

Anaerobic digestion is a process through which bacteria break down organic matter—such as manure—without oxygen. As the bacteria “work,” they generate biogas. The biogas that is generated is made mostly of methane, the primary component of natural gas. The non-methane components of the biogas are removed so the methane can be used as an energy source. READ MORE

Manufacturing Circular Economy

Even though Electronic items are often made of durable materials such as plastics and metals, they are used for a relatively short period of time before they are no longer considered valuable or useful. Current disposal practices mean much of the energy, resources and value embodied in electronic products is lost, generating vast amounts of waste in the process.

 In a vision of a circular economy for consumer electronic products by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation they are loved for longer.

 They are kept in use for as long as possible, either by the original user, or flowing to new users who will find new value and utility in them.

Eventually, devices end up in the hands of specialists, who will professionally refurbish products, reuse or remanufacture the valuable components inside, and separate and recycle materials.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation have identified four ambitions required to achieve this vision:

  • Electronic devices are loved for longer, by one user or by many: the distinction between new and second hand makes little sense when the focus is on functionality, and devices contain new, used and remanufactured components.
  • Devices are a gateway to the cloud: distributed computing has the potential
    to increase product longevity by allowing for more flexibility and adaptability in computing power and memory allocation, with the potential to reduce structural waste.
  • Customers get the service that’s right for them: products and components are kept in use; circulated between different categories of users for as long as possible. This way, the residual utility and value of a product are matched to the appropriate needs and budgets of users.
  • Products and components are cascaded: to get maximum benefit from energy and resources, electronic items move from high-end consumer electronics to lower performance applications. They eventually reach recycling processes, where all materials are recovered and reused in the system.

 

In 2016 alone, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were generated globally, of which 435 thousand tonnes were mobile phones, representing more than the mass of the Empire State Building .

 

An increase in material productivity with a circular economy would create a more resilient economy due to newfound creativity and innovative methods. This would enable us to rely significantly less on our resource market, allowing us to avoid shock resource prices as well as societal and environmental costs that are avoided by big-name companies.

Since 2010 the Ellen Macarthur Foundation  charity has dedicated itself to accelerating the transition to a circular economy, establishing the model to decision-makers across business, governments and academia.

One of the many ways that they achieve this is through The Circular Economy 100 (CE100) Network, ‘The CE100 is a global platform bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.’ (The Ellen McArthur Foundation).

This is essentially a space for companies to educate themselves, share knowledge and transform concepts into real life. Many companies now realise that to maintain a market presence, a circular economy is vital to have within their future approach. Due to this, The CE100 network brings together members in the likes of P&G, Apple and Microsoft, with additional support from their mega-brand partners: Google, DS Smith and Unilever. To maintain a string of communication The McArthur Foundation hosts Acceleration Workshops, Co.Projects, an Annual Summit and provides comprehensive resources.

Delving into the success’ of The Ellen McArthur Foundation, I found their collaborative work with Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government in which they supported the shift to a 100% electric mobility system. The city initially identified their issues with poor air quality, finding that fuel vehicles contributed to 20% of the cities air pollution. In response, they introduced a service that allowed organisations to rent e-busses and batteries to reduce the pressure of upfront investments. Following on from this, in 2017 Shenzhen became the first city worldwide to completely cut out fuel busses.

Shenzhen Electric city. A series of electric recharging pumps. A city only having an electric Taxi service and the biggest fleet of public buses in the world.

Shenzhen now has ownership of 16,000 electric buses and has impacted the cities noise pollution radically. This success has also encouraged the development of the local electric vehicle industry, now extending to other mobility forms also. This transformation is a great example of a step towards a circular economy as it supports a transition towards renewable, low carbon energy. It not only has remarkable environmental benefits but also heavily considers the financial implications for local businesses and citizens. This highlights the realistic approach taken by both the Shenzhen Government and The Ellen McArthur Foundation, as there are many barriers to overcome when switching to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Shenzhen has become the showpiece capital for the Chinese electric dream. In 2017 it became the first city in the world to introduce a fleet of electric buses. A year later, the government rolled out a plan to replace city taxis with electric cars.

In less than a decade China’s new electric vehicle market has become the largest in the world. In 2018 more than a million electric vehicles were sold in China, more than three times the number sold in the US. China has some giant makers of components, such as batteries. In 2018 CATL, a Chinese electric battery maker, became the official supplier of BMW’s electric cars

 

Tesla announced it would enter into an agreement with the company to supply batteries for Tesla’s newly built Shanghai mega-plant, capable of producing 500,000 vehicles a year.

To find out more information on how to make a difference and switch to a circular economy find more details from The Ellen McArthur Foundation in their ‘Towards a Circular Economy Report’.

 

 

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