Circular Economy

How can we move away from disposable lifestyles?

Our economy is based on the linear pattern of take, make and dispose which is wasteful and inefficient. The shift to a circular model might help to overcome global challenges.


We have moved to a society that considers almost all consumer goods as disposable. The thesis of a ‘throwaway society’ (Trentmann, 2016) can be traced back to the 1960s when it became fashionable to change even long-lasting products like cars, every few years (Papanek, 1985).

The linear consumption model of take, make and dispose with the increasing pace of product turnovers is not only unsustainable but also inefficient. We fill our oceans with waste and at the same time we will soon run out of natural resources (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). It is estimated that we will consume three times more resources annually in 2050 (Burrow, 2017) and by 2025, waste production will be doubled (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012).

“In western economies, 3/4 of everything we buy becomes waste within just one year.” (Burrow, 2017)

When we talk about “pollution through products” (Papanek, 1985) it includes not only that natural resources are destroyed but also the holistic cycle of the supply chain has to be considered. It includes manufacturing processes, packaging, shipping, usage and finally the disposal and recycling (Papanek, 1985).

”‘Business-as-usual’ forecast with an estimated population of 9.5 billion and 80% urbanisation.” by Nature/Hoornweg et. al. (2013)

To tackle these global challenges, Michael Braungart and William McDonough (2009), authors of the book Cradle-to-Cradle pointed out, that we need to move away from a linear and wasteful economy to a circular model, where products and materials float in closed loops. New scenarios of product use and reuse (Braungart, McDonough, 2009) are needed to reach those regenerative systems.

Linear Economy Model

The linear economy model is based on the three main actions of take, make and dispose. The supply chain of value creation includes Business & Design, Manufacturer & Supplier, Retailer and User (Grüner Hering, 2017). At the time of purchase, the value of physical products is often at its highest level. After that, products only lose value over time until they get disposed.

Graphic: Inspired by Grüner Hering (2017)

Circular Economy Model

The circular economy model can be distinguished between technical and biological cycles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). The present project will focus on the technical cycle, which deals with value preservation opportunities such as ‘Reuse’ and ‘Repair, Remanufacture & Recycle’ of products and materials. Systems like ‘Products-as-a-Service’ can be implemented to keep loops as small as possible and the system more profitable and resource efficient (Stahel, 2012).

Graphic: Inspired by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013)

Designing around people’s needs — not products

Beside repairing, remanufacturing and recycling, change will happen when the lifetime of products increases to reduce the manufacturing of new products (CEC Expert, 2016).

The needed reduction of consumption for a circular economy stands in contrast to how the linear economy works (Nguyen, Stuchtey and Zils, 2014). The current economic model is based on growth, where profit sits on single units. It follows the paradigm of sell more, earn more which needs the assumption of disposability. To increase sales, a rapid turnover of products is needed, which is often achieved by strategies like planned obsolescence in different kind of industries (Hadhazy, 2016). Longer lasting products and the reduction of consumption would mean a decrease in growth and therefore an unprofitable business.

1. 2017 UK Automotive Sustainability Report (SMMT, 2016)
 2. Universiteit Gent, Life Cycle Assessment Group LCA 2 (Ayoub and Irusta, 2014)
 3. thelightbulb.co.uk (Walker, 2017)
 4. Self experiement at Pret-A-Manger
“More than 20% of all CO2-emissions stem from durable consumer goods. Most of these goods are only used during less than 10% of their life-time.” (Peerby, 2017)

A new mindset will be needed to overcome these unacceptable wasteful and inefficient practices. In a circular economy, it will be not anymore about the quantity of products that will be sold, but about products that last as long as possible (Business Debate, 2016). Not only products have to be optimized for multiple cycles of reuse and remanufacturing (Braungart, McDonough, 2009) but also business models have to be redesigned.

Seeing products as a part of a system (‘products-as-a-service’) and focusing on system solutions will be the most profitable and resource efficient way for a circular economy business model (Stahel, 2012). A so called “Performance Economy” (Stahel, 2010) is based on the three parameters of “producing performance, selling performance and maintaining performance over time” (Stahel, 2012). It is build on small reverse cycles, where manufacturers of products will keep ownership of goods and resources. These small cycles compared with a longer lifetime of products (a longer circulation) will be crucial in terms of efficiency along the supply chain (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013).

The shift will not only change how businesses operate but also how people consume. It will be a “front-end design and innovation issue” (Sherwin, 2013) where products have not to be seen as isolated objects but as part of a system. Joe Murphy (2017) who manages the Circular Economy 100 business network at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says in an interview, that systems have to be designed around people to be more effective in the way they operate.

For the shift to a circular economy, it is needed to consider changing lifestyles of people which are characterized by growing levels of consumption and a ‘throwaway’mindset (Trentmann, 2016). New models and systems have to be not only ‘less bad’ but ‘better’ (Braungart, McDonough, 2009) to find answers for changing user needs and values.

Find out more: www.wagnerthomas.org

References

Ayoub, A. and Irusta, C. (2014) Comparison between Electric Kettle and Stovetop Kettle. Gent: Universiteit Gent. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/251067516/Life-Cycle-Assessment-Comparison-between-Electric-Kettle-and-Stovetop-Kettle (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Braungart, M., McDonough, W. (2009). Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things. Vintage, London.

Burrow, S. (2017) Mainstreaming the Circular Economy Model, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY3q2TaN0IE&t= (Accessed: 20 November 2017).

Business Debate (2016) CIRCULARITY — Preparing for the New Circular Economy, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUkuURhrn1E (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

CEC Expert (2016) Circular Economy & The Demand for “New Stuff”, circulareconomyclub.com. Available at: https://www.circulareconomyclub.com/circular-economy-the-demand-for-new-stuff/ (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013) Towards the Circular Vol. 1: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation-Towards-the-Circular-Economy-vol.1.pdf (Accessed: 18. June 2017)

Hadhazy, A. (2016) Here’s the truth about the ‘planned obsolescence’ of tech, bbc.com. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160612-heres-the-truth-about-the-planned-obsolescence-of-tech (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Hoornweg, D. and Bhada-Tata, P. (2012) What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management. Washington: The World Bank. Available at: https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTURBANDEVELOPMENT/Resources/336387-1334852610766/What_a_Waste2012_Final.pdf (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Murphy, J. (2017) Expert view: The Circular Economy with Joe Murphy — IMAGINE — Medium, Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/space10-imagine/expert-view-the-circular-economy-with-joe-murphy-4503bb84c1b8 (Accessed: 16 November 2017).

Nguyen, H., Stuchtey, M. and Zils, M. (2014) Remaking the industrial economy, McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/remaking-the-industrial-economy (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Papanek, V. (1985). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 2 edition. ed. Thames & Hudson, London.

Peerby (2017) About Peerby, peerby.com. Available at: https://www.peerby.com/about (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Sherwin, C. (2013) Design for circular economy must consider disruptive technologies, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/design-circular-economy-disruptive-technology (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

SMMT (2017) 2017 UK Automotive Sustainability Report, Smmt.co.uk. Available at: https://www.smmt.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/SMMT-Sustainability-Report-2017-online.pdf (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Stahel, W. (2012) The business angle of a circular economy — higher competitiveness, higher resource security and material efficiency. Geneva: The Product-Life Institute. Available at: http://www.rebelalliance.eu/uploads/9/2/9/2/9292963/stahel_the_business_angle_of_a_circular_economy.pdf (Accessed: 15 November 2017).

Trentmann, F. (2017) Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First. 1st edn. Penguin.

Walker, N. (2017) Light Bulb Average Rated Life Time Hours, The Lightbulb Co.. Available at: https://www.thelightbulb.co.uk/resources/light_bulb_average_rated_life_time_hours/ (Accessed: 15 November 2017).