The globe has seen seven of its hottest years on record since 2014. Not only that, glaciers melting have doubled in the last 20 years and erratic weather events have been more frequent- from hurricanes, wildfires, and cyclones in the US to heatwaves in Australia and the Arctic, and floods in Africa and Asia. It is evident that we have a climate crisis. To add to this are the extreme levels of pollution, biodiversity degradation, and growing resources crisis. In the midst of all this, when one gets talking about possible solutions, there is one phrase that gets thrown around a lot and that is the circular economy.
As much as it gets used, the understanding as to what all it entails, how it works and how it is going to yield benefits to the environment and the economy is still at a nascent stage in Nepal. Some have been practicing it in bits and pieces without even knowing about it. Some view it as a model for a utopian society, elusive and far from reach. Some see it as just another distraction to development and progress. So, what really is a circular economy? What are its benefits? And how can we build circular systems?
Circular Economy in Principles
We all know that the natural ecosystem is the source of all raw materials and also the sink for our waste. With economies growing larger every day, ever more raw materials are needed and more waste produced as a result. Continuing on this path, we are putting immense pressure on the natural ecosystem to a point that it simply cannot withstand. Approximately 60% of key ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably, leading to a decline in natural resources. This is the result of the current linear economy or ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model.
On the other hand, we have a circular economy that aims to address this crisis. As per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
The first principle is about designing out waste. As it is said, waste is simply a design flaw. If different parts of a product are designed to fit within the biological and materials cycle and manufactured to allow for easy disassembly and refurbishment, waste becomes inexistent. This is what we witness in biological materials which are non-toxic and can be simply returned to the biosphere (through composting or other approaches).
Similarly, the circular approach works by recovering and reusing as many products and materials as possible, in a systematic manner, over and over again. This way, we help keep materials in the economy and exalt products that can be reused, remanufactured, and repaired.
The third principle is about how it resembles the diversity of a natural ecosystem. Different species are contributing to the overall health of an ecosystem. Greater biodiversity means that the ecosystem can sustain many different types of organisms and have greater support at times of disruptive events. Accordingly, an economy can derive greater value by having a bigger pool of resources to draw from. This addresses the resource scarcity and volatility in price which is a long-identified threat to economies and businesses. Thus, the third principle of a circular economy is building resilience through diversity.
A circular economy is also about renewable energy that not only powers the system but also is sustainable. Hence, if we are to build a circular economic system to work, we need to consider the third principle i.e. energy from renewable sources.
Finally, a systemic solution as a circular economy is not about a firm changing a product. It is about many actors working together to create effective flows of materials and information, all of which are powered by renewable energy. When we view systems, we see the linkages within the system and ways in how we can create opportunities to generate economic, environmental, and societal gains. That is the fourth principle of the circular economy- to ‘think in systems’.
From Linear to Circular
The butterfly diagram illustrates the technical and biological loops that help to recirculate products, components, and raw materials and create a value circle to rebuild the economy and the natural ecosystem.
Circular Economy in Practice
Below is a brief introduction to a few steps outlined in the diagram.
- Reuse/ Redistribute- Reuse is simply the maintenance of a product and the process of keeping it in a good condition. To redistribute is to reintroduce a product for the same purpose and in its original form with some minimal maintenance and cosmetic cleaning.
- Refurbishment is the process of getting a product to a good working condition by replacing or repairing components that are faulty or close to failure and making some changes to update the appearance of a product.
- Remanufacturing is about disassembling products into components, bringing those components back to the original quality, and then using them to manufacture new products that are identical to the original products.
- Recycling denotes the process of recovering materials for the original purpose or other purposes. If the process results in a reduction in quality, it is often described as downcycling. Meanwhile, processing in a way to improve material or product quality is described as upcycling.
- The biochemical feedstock is used to denote chemical components of biological form that can be returned to the biosphere.
- Cascading components and materials means putting them into different uses after end-of-life across different value streams and extracting the energy stored over time.
- Biochemicals extraction consists of applying biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce high-value chemical products or high-volume liquid transport fuel and thereby generating electricity.
- Anaerobic digestion is a process in which microorganisms break down organic materials in the absence of oxygen. This technique produces biogas and a solid residual. While biogas can be used as a source of energy similar to natural gas, the solid residual can be used as compost.
- The biosphere denotes the global sum of all ecosystems on the planet, including all life forms and their environment.
- The stage of farming/collection is the harvesting by humans of organisms regenerated in the biosphere, whether through farming, hunting, or fishing.
For a circular economy to work, it is all about putting its principles into the practices mentioned above. Once its core is understood and the processes are in place, the system as a whole can work effectively and contribute towards a circular economy that is very much achievable and can yield a myriad of benefits to businesses, economies, and the ecosystem as a whole.
 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2001. Retrieved from: https://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.356.aspx.pdf
Picture Source: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept/infographic