Circular Economy: Levelling up the 3 Rs

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You may be shocked that the first article of BOX does not concern new technology. Rather, it is about a system of living.

Why?

As we embark on scientific discourse, it is imperative that, whatever technology we design, companies we build, or products we own, we think about the survival of society in the long term. Maybe, that’s hard to see in a “you versus the world” culture. In that particular mindset, it’s easier and more financially-sound to take and dispose resources without considering anyone else. (Just think of all the dumpsites!) But, what if you could have the same — or even better — level of success with an opposing school of thought? That is what the circular economy is about.

The circular economy is reminiscent of the 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) applied on an industrial cycle. However, it is a better strategy as it is more engaging and encompassing for members of society (i.e., consumers, corporations, governments). The circular economy takes inspiration from the highly efficient cycles of nature where there is a never-ending stream of products and resources obtained from the waste of the cycle. It applies this principle to the product life cycle. A perfect circular economy would mean no waste, which also means a shift to renewable energy.

This scenario is very familiar to you all, albeit in an informal setting. We’ve heard of Smokey Mountain and Payatas, and we see it everyday when kids, men, and women pick up trash along the roads and carry bottles and carton in an old rice sack. While scavenging proves the economic potential of waste (Note: scavengers earn around PHP 7680/month), it does not best represent the circular economy because it is an informal activity brought about by inefficient waste management and characterized by exploitation, health risks, and out-of-school youth.

In a circular economy, products are designed, in addition to the purpose of the product, to accomplish two things: biodegradability and several life cycles. Whatever is non-toxic can be returned to the soil or used for biogas. For the non-biodegradable products, like metals and many plastics, the circular economy proposes the product be designed in such a way that the product can be upgraded or upcycled.

An inclusive circular economy requires a collaborative effort. Several companies will form partnerships where Company A pays Company B for waste to be used as a Company A ingredient. Customer relations will also evolve. Instead of disposing products, consumers will return them to the company. For instance, H&M encourages customers to return their old clothes in exchange for a voucher. These clothes are separated so that some are sold as second-hand clothing while others are used in the auto industry. Because companies are requesting consumers to return used products, a new business model that focuses on leasing has arrived. This means that, instead of buying lights from Philips, you can now lease them. Customers won’t have to worry about high upfront costs and disposal. They can enjoy the maintenance, replacements, and technology upgrades provided by Philips.

In the Philippines, we have yet to hear of major corporations working with each other to reduce waste and leasing products to consumers. But, there are initiatives that are built on circular economy principles. For instance, Rags2Riches (R2R) creates and sells bags out of upcycled cloth.

If the circular economy hype hasn’t assimilated into the Filipino culture yet, what can be done to the waste now? Scavenging should be formalized, and the government should handle all junk transactions in order to increase waste management efficiency. By doing so, OSY can no longer employed, and, without several middlemen, scavengers get a bigger paycheck. Although scavenging will be obsolete in a circular economy, it would be strategic to milk the waste economy of all possible benefits while it exists.

Hypothetically, let’s say the Philippines already operated on a circular economy. What then happens to the scavengers in a zero-waste economy?

The automatic response would be that they are plunged deeper into poverty. But, proper planning would prevent this. Implementing a circular economy model in the Philippines is not going to happen overnight; it would take years. During the transition period, training programs for scavengers should exist so that scavengers are slowly integrated into the circular economy. R2R shows us this is possible. They started by directly connecting factories and consumers to Payatas mothers, who initially had to work with several middlemen to source scrap fabrics and sell finished products. Now, R2R trains these ex-scavengers to be community artisans.

If a circular economy creates better and more inclusive economic growth, why haven’t we taken more aggressive steps towards achieving it?

Probably, because it requires too much effort. For a circular economy to work, each step of a product’s life cycle must be accounted for. We would be creating several connections between different companies, the government, and consumers. It is a huge task to undertake given the other challenges facing this country. Moreover, if each industry is highly linked to one another, any failure in one would begin a chain reaction of disaster among all industries. The ability of the Philippines to bounce back quickly is questionable.

Another possible reason is the small but high-end market for upcycled and eco-friendly goods. No matter how noble and amazing R2R bags are, it is difficult for most Filipinos to patronize R2R. To drive this point home, majority of UP students can’t afford a PHP 1.5k/unit education; a PHP 2–3 k R2R bag is unaffordable. Because the market for upcycled items is tiny, there is no cash incentive for businesses to abandon the mass market. We have to find a cheaper (for both buyers and producers) way to upcycle items so that products are affordable for consumers but still profit-generating for businesses. Streamlining the recycling process is one possibility.

Several of you may be cynical about a circular economy occurring in the Philippines given the challenges presented. However, we would like to believe it is possible. It won’t be a perfect circular economy at first. Only some of the waste resulting from each stage of a product’s life cycle will be used as input in a circular economy, and consumer electronics probably won’t be easily disassembled into reusable components. But, we can start small and slowly approach 100 % efficiency. R2R is proof of that. And, it’s also proof of the potential of the whole Philippines.

If you have time, check this Ellen MacArthur Foundation video out to learn about the circular economy in 4 minutes!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCRKvDyyHmI

Sources:
Buensuceso, R. (2015). Smokey Mountain Vision Plan 2040.Herrera, V. (2013, May 1).

Rags2Riches: opportunities through fashion. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/life-and-style/27819-rags-to-riches-opportunities-through-fashion

Van Ewijk, S. (2014, March 10). Three challenges to the circular economy. Retrieved from https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/sustainable-resources/2014/03/10/three-challenges-to-the-circular-economy/World

Economic Forum. (2014). Towards the circular economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_ENV_TowardsCircularEconomy_Report_2014.pdf