🌀 When going round in circles makes complete sense – The Circular Economy 🌀

Home / Our Wisdom / 🌀 When going round in circles makes complete sense – The Circular Economy 🌀

The below is  newsletter I have written in my role of Director of Awards at Katerva; first published 19th November 2020.

Moving towards The Circular Economy

The only way forward

While the ‘circular economy’ as a concept emerged in the 1970s, it gained wider awareness when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was set up by Dame Ellen MacArthur in 2009. Probably best known for making yachting history in 2005 when she became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe, Ellen set up the foundation after becoming acutely aware of the finite nature of the resources our linear economy relies upon. The website remains a leading source for everything on and about the circular economy. Interestingly, it was China who was most enthusiastic in embracing this concept by introducing its circular economy Promotion Lawin 2009.

The graphic created by the Ellen MacArthur foundation below captures the principles of the circular economy which are,

The three principles of the circular economy are:

  • Design out waste and pollution

  • Keep materials and products in use

  • Regenerate natural systems

The closer the circle is to the user (on the right hand side of the graphic), the better the solution. So, recycling is the last resort – all recycling does is extend the time before a product eventually ends up in a landfill. The goal of the circular economy is that everything is either a technical nutrient that goes back into the system or a biological nutrient that goes back into the soil. One powerful tool for achieving a circular economy is the Sharing Economy, an economic model defined as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services that is often facilitated by a community-based on-line platform.

It’s perhaps fair to say though that the concept has only really taken hold in the public imagination in recent years as consumers around the world have demanded not only good quality and affordable products but sustainable ones too.  This shift reached its nadir in 2017 when British conservationist Sir David Attenborough used the Blue Planet II television series to highlight the enormous damage plastic packaging was doing to marine life around the world.

He issued a clarion call that was rapidly met by coordinated action, with China announcing plans to ban the import of foreign recyclable material, the European Union developing a plastics strategy, and corporations around the world joining forces with entrepreneurs and social enterprises via initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact and the French Roadmap on the Circular Economy.

Despite the enormous publicity and awareness that was raised by the program, however, researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford suggest that it did little in actually driving meaningful behavior change.  Instead, the researchers believe that the increased understanding of the issues surrounding marine conservation was not reflected in people’s preference for plastic.

“The findings from our experiment are counter to the popular idea that Blue Planet II reduced viewers’ preference for plastic, instead demonstrating that human behaviours are complex and determined by more than just knowledge,” the researchers explain.

Changing behaviours

Research from the University of East Anglia highlights how important our peers are in driving lasting change, which in their case meant encouraging people to conserve water.  Much of our social identities are wrapped up in a place or group of people.  These identities have a profound impact on our attitudes and behaviors.  Behavioral economics suggests that awareness of how others in our social group behave can therefore have a big impact on our own behavior.

“Traditionally, water conservation communication campaigns deliver general water saving information. However, campaigns informed by behavioural science can increase their effectiveness and should form an integral part of demand reduction strategies,” the authors explain.  “Activating a sense of regional identity, such as a local city, neighbourhood or community, and communicating credible information about the behaviour and practices of other group members should strengthen perceived norms regarding water conservation, resulting in increased water-savings efforts among community members.”

The last few years have seen approaches such as behavioral economics married with technology-driven gamification to drive tangible behavior change in a wide range of domains, not least in areas such as recycling and energy conservation.

For instance, waste startup Recyclebank has shown what can be achieved with its social and gamified approach.  They fitted recycling bins with RFID chips to weigh the amount of recyclable waste users generated each week.  This was then converted into points that could be converted into rewards from retailers.

These points, which are analogous to frequent flyer points from an airline or loyalty points from a grocery store, proved effective at changing user behavior, with one community in Bridgeport, Connecticut citing a 67% increase in recycling rates over a two-year period after adopting the Recyclebank awards scheme.

Similar results have been achieved by energy startup oPower, which applied a gamified approach to encouraging people to use less energy. The company, who has subsequently been acquired by software company Oracle, works with utility companies to provide households with data on how much energy they are consuming, how they compare with neighbors, and if they are close to any new milestones.  This has had a tangible impact, with users reporting a 2% fall in energy usage, whilst it may not sound much if it could be scaled up would equate to the equivalent of keeping 100,000 cars off the road.

A close cousin to using gamification as a driver of behavioural change is something called Fun Theory. Back in 2009 Volkswagen commissioned Stockholm-based advertising agency DDB to develop a campaign to find out if making the world more fun could improve people’s behaviour. Check out the video below.

Want people to change their behaviour?  Make it fun !

You also have the Dutch startup, Excess Materials Exchange, who were one of Katerva’s Category Winner in 2019.  Their platform promotes the reuse of materials and waste products by matchmaking those with such products and those who could potentially use them.  The company believes that by showing the financial value of seemingly waste materials, it can greatly encourage their reuse and prevent vast quantities from going to landfill.

Of course, these efforts on their own will only achieve a lasting impact if they’re accompanied by a more systemic change to how our society functions.  Indeed, as David Attenborough himself poignantly says, “many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.”  There is clearly a will, all we need is the way.

Below are some tips from Katervans on what individuals, and organisations, can do to help us move towards a circular economy.

Hot of the press: We are delighted to announce that we will be running further webinars! At least one of them will be on the circular economy: Tuesday 15th December 16.00 GMT Shari Welsh will introduce us to “The hero’s journey towards the circular economy”, a tool that will help organisations engage with the concept of the circular economy. If you are wondering what the concept of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is, check out the video below

A Hero’s Journey – Watch this video to find out what it is all about ;-).

Moving towards a circular economy

Below some tips on how we, as individuals and organisations, can help move towards a circular economy, using Ellen MacArthur framework’s shown earlier. As the left-hand side is all about shifting  towards sustainable sources of energy, the tips focus on the right-hand side.

What each and everyone of us can do
As being aware is the starting point for any change, the minimum all of us can do is to tell others about the concept and principles of  the circular economy: our family and friends, inside our organisations, customers, suppliers – in short, anyone!

There are also things each of us can contribute to the five loops on the right hand side:

1) Sharing economy: consider renting tools versus buying them; most of us own power tools which sit in the garage or shelf for most of the time which is a very wasteful use of resources. The Toronto Tool Library is a great example.

2) Maintain / prolong the life of a product: buy high quality products whenever possible in the first place, then take care of your products so that they last longer.

3) Reuse / Redistribute: Take the time to donate your unwanted items or give them away for free. Most charities take such donations, and there are also platforms such as Buy Nothing Project where you can give way, lend, or share no longer wanted items with neighbors.

4) Refurbish / Remanufacture: There are two aspects to this. The first is to ask whether products have been designed for repair and recyclability. The second is to consider refurbished or remanufactured products. Such products you can find, for example, on Amazon Renewed.

5) Recycle: similar to the above, when purchasing items we can keep an eye on recyclability, and also favour products with minimum packaging.You can find tips on reducing packaging waste here.

It also helps to frame every decision we make on the indigenous understanding that we ARE nature, not separate from nature.

What organisations can do

1) Sharing economy: a concept that comes closest to the ‘sharing economy’ between individuals is servitisation – offering services instead of products.The beauty of that concept is that what was previously contributing to an organsation’s profit: the need ro repair and replace products, becomes a cost to the company. It is therefore in the organisation’s best interest to design and manufacture their products to the highest possible standards.

2) Maintain / prolong the life of a product: this requires life-cycle and end-of-life considerations to feed into the design stage. Cradle-to-Cradle is such a concept that promotes such thinking, and organisations can become certification.

3) Reuse / Redistribute: the Excess Materials Exchange is a good example here. Learning from nature where there is no such thing as ‘waste’, organisations can ask the question: “for which organisation could use my ‘waste’ materials as ‘input / resource’ for their business?

4) Refurbish / Remanufacture: increasingly companies are offering ‘buy-back’ services for their products. Patagonia is one of the leading organisations with this approach.

5) Recycle: organisations can ensure that everything that can possibly be recycled is indeed recycled. They can also go a step further and offer recycling facilities to their employees. In 2018 Forbes identified the following as the world’s best recyclers: Estée Lauder, Intel, Accenture, Texas Instruments, and Eaton; all of them recycle more than 885% of their waste.


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