What is the ‘circular economy’ and why does GUCA, alongside several economists, academics and cultural icons such as Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep, support it?
Current Linear Economy
We currently live in a predominantly linear economy. This means that our products are made, used and then thrown away.
When the iPhone 6 was released in 2014, Apple boasted that they had sold over 10 million phones in the first three days. Economic success is constantly measured in this way – by the ability to sell as many units as possible. As consumers who have grown up in the linear economy we crave private ownership of items, especially ones which look and feel brand new. The result of this is that raw material extraction has increased by 60% worldwide since 1980.
In a linear economy, it’s in the best interest of the producer to make something which stops working after a short period of time so that the consumers will continue to buy more products to ensure that they continually make profit and the economy is fuelled. For example, we tend to believe that lightbulbs typically only last for a year or so, but surprisingly, lightbulbs that last a lifetime were invented over a century ago. A primary reason that lightbulbs like this have not been designed and developed for use in homes is because there would no longer be a need for consumers to continually buy lightbulbs.
The Alternative: Circular Economy
But what if we lived in a society where there was no option to buy something which is ‘new’ and made of entirely raw materials? What if you could only either purchase an item second-hand or hire it? What if the resources that are currently in circulation were all used to either repair, regenerate or remanufacture? This is the circular economy.
In a circular economy, the ‘repair or replace?’ dilemma we all face with our appliances would be mute and landfills would be a distant memory. Although achieving a society without landfills may sound utopian, the UK’s economy is already 19% circular. While this is a positive start, we still clearly have a long way to go.
The mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is really relevant here. Currently a big emphasis is put on recycling as the alternative to sending waste to landfill. While this is still a much greater alternative, in a circular economy recycling would actually be the last resort due to the energy it takes to treat and process recyclables and the downgrading of materials in the process. Instead, we would find a use for every piece of material or produce that is currently in circulation.
For an in-depth look at exactly what this kind of economy would look like, have a watch of this quick YouTube video!
So, why support it?
Extracting and harvesting raw materials from the Earth uses large amounts of energy and so ending the need for raw materials would help alleviate the pressure on energy production worldwide. A fully circular economy would also help to prevent animal extinction and loss of biodiversity because habitats would no longer need to be destroyed in order to extract more raw materials. The drastic reduction of waste that a circular economy would promote would reduce the amount of landfill emitted pollutants that are in the atmosphere such as acid gases, methane and micropollutants. This too would have a positive impact on habitats of animals and biodiversity. Essentially it would be good news all round for the planet!
Human Rights Benefits
As well as clear environmental benefits, the circular economy also has a positive effect on human rights. Raw material extraction has a negative impact on those living near the sites due to the environmental impact of extraction itself. For example, lithium extraction depletes and contaminates water which seriously jeopardises the water source of those living near the sites. Exploitation of workers at extraction sites is widespread and definitely a human rights issue, for instance children of primary school age work in cobalt mines for very little money in unsafe conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sale of raw materials, such as diamonds, can also fuel war and conflict.
There are also large economic benefits to moving to a circular economy. The fight over finite resources becomes increasingly competitive as resources deplete and production continues to grow. The price of the raw materials that companies need to make their goods correspondingly become increasingly expensive for them to purchase.
A circular economy would also make a state’s economy self-sustaining and stable. Once a raw material has run out, if that material is already in constant circulation the impact of it running out will not be felt. In addition, the circular economy could have a positive financial impact on the general population. The circular economy would require less raw materials and more people who can constantly fix, repair and regenerate goods which would create more job opportunities.
How is this done in practice?
If we are to successfully transition to a fully circular economy, we first need to drastically reduce our consumption. Secondly, anything we do own we need to repair or regenerate and reuse it until that is no longer possible. Then finally we need to recycle the materials so they can be used again in the production stage.
Everything needs to either be made to be completely degradable or have parts that are reusable by design, businesses need to make their appliances easier to take apart so they can be more simply repaired and incentives need to be created for consumers to return their goods to the supplier so that its parts can be recycled. Goods need to be increasingly hired out to increase income for the producer and reduce costs for the consumer, the energy used to fuel regeneration, repair and recycling need to come from renewable sources and there needs to be increased investment into designing durability of products.
What are some of the steps taken already?
Scotland is already seen as a world leader in progressing to the circular economy. The Scottish Government became the first nation in the world to join Ellen-MacArthur Foundation’s initiative to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. They have also released a circular economy strategy for Scotland and are currently funding a zero waste campaign.
Some businesses have also started to offer incentives to return materials. For example, technology companies like Apple often offer you money if you return an old iPhone or Macbook to them, even if some of the components no longer work.
What can you do and how does this relate to GUCA?
On a personal level, we all need to focus on reducing and reusing before recycling. GUCA’s aim this year is to promote one easy way of doing this – reducing food waste. We can do this both by reducing produce and packaging and get one step closer to creating a circular economy. (Find out more about our food campaign in last week’s blog post.)
We can stop ourselves buying clothes we think we’ll only wear once, hire a bike instead of buying a new one or reduce the food that we buy in correspondence with the amount that we waste. (There are so many ways to limit food related waste and to keep our impact on the planet to a minimum – in-depth ideas to follow in later blog posts!)
When one of our technological appliances breaks, we can investigate repairing it or choose to buy a refurbished second hand version (which is often much cheaper and operates like new). Or if there’s a hole in a pair of trousers, we could attempt to sew that hole instead of abandoning the trousers altogether. Or we could take our own coffee cup to the library and use it for refills instead of using one time packaging.
You could also take a more active role! If you want to learn more about what you can do individually while also engaging others and widening the discussion don’t hesitate to get involved with GUCA and our upcoming food campaign.
Even if you don’t have time for a society commitment, businesses still need to be educated about the circular economy. Spread the word by telling your friends about the idea of a circular economy, write letters to businesses highlighting the benefits it would give them and show support for it with your money by increasingly using repair shops and buying second-hand items.
Above all, the most important thing we can all do is cherish charity shop purchases, embrace change and keep thinking big.
((Post by Juliet Kirkland))