RETHINKING OUR STUFF
Moving Toward a Circular Economy
by Yvette Hammett
When Yale researcher Reid Lifset began working on waste issues on a life cycle basis—from “cradle to grave”—it was mostly the world’s geeks and nerds that paid attention, he says. “Today, it’s called the ‘circular economy’ and it’s sexy. It wasn’t sexy back then.”
While many still have never even heard the term, the “circular economy” is all about rethinking the way we make stuff—designing products that can be reused and powering it all with renewable energy. It’s an alternative to the “make-use-and-dispose” mentality of the traditional linear economy.
“You are the circular economy when you buy pre-owned, second-hand objects, or rent or share the use of objects, or have broken objects repaired instead of buying new ones,” says Walter Stahel, author of The Circular Economy: A User’s Guide and a member of the European Union’s Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. In other words, everyone that buys sustainable goods or services, takes public transport or gets a lawnmower fixed instead of buying a new one is a participant.
There’s a global movement afoot to expand the circular economy in an effort to significantly cut the waste stream, reduce our carbon footprint and conserve resources.
It began with the three R’s—reduce, recycle and reuse, says Lifset, a Research Scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who edits the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which focuses on the environmental consequences of production and consumption.
The emphasis has always been on recycling, but as that becomes more difficult due to saturation levels, the emphasis is shifting to the more comprehensive goals of a circular economy—or should be, says Stahel, an engineering professor at the University of Surrey.
Tinia Pina, a program leader at NY Cares, joined the movement after observing the poor food choices her Harlem, New York, students were making and the amount of waste attached to them. She founded Re-Nuble, a small manufacturing operation in New York City, to transform food waste into fertilizer pellets that can be used in hydroponic farming.
“There is a strong need to try to reduce the volume of waste,” Pina says. “There is also a strong need to produce sustainable—and, ideally, chemical-free—food and make it affordable for all.” She hopes to eventually replicate her process for creating fertilizer in other large cities across the country.
Leasing is another classic example of how the circular economy might work, Lifset says. “If the entity that made [a product] ends up with it when it becomes waste, that company will handle it differently.” The company can instead design a product so that it remains in the economy instead of becoming part of the waste stream, he notes.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established in the UK in 2010 to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. It offers numerous case studies, including a San Francisco effort called Cradle to Cradle Carpets for City Buildings.
Last year, the city passed legislation requiring all departments to use carpeting containing no antimicrobials, fluorinated compounds or flame retardants. Both the carpet fibers and backing materials “must contain minimum amounts of recycled materials and ultimately be recyclable at end-of-use.” Most important: It must be Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver or better. The certification is a globally recognized standard for safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy.
Meantime, the European Union has embraced the circular economy as a boon to job creation and a way to significantly address climate change. By shifting to a circular economy, the European growth rate can be increased by an additional 0.6 percent a year and carbon dioxide emissions reduced by 48 percent by 2030, according to a 2017 report by McKinsey & Company. Just how much of the world’s industries must participate to meet these goals is yet to be determined.
“That,” Stahel says, “is the billion-dollar question.”
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. She can be contacted at YvetteHammett28@hotmail.com.