Advancing the Circular Economy

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Illustration by Andrew Brumagen / Freethink.

Circular Economy as a Roadmap for Sustainable Systems

There is a growing awareness of the urgency to address escalating resource use and environmental degradation associated with continued economic growth. The perceived tension – that the environment must be sacrificed for economic and social well-being – is often false and increasingly damaging.  The Circular Economy (CE) concept, championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) since 2013, presents an alternative framework that takes a systems-view of the complex interconnections between economic growth, resource consumption, and human well-being. The technical and philosophical challenge of CE is embedded in the principle objective to “…create a closed-loop for each natural or man-made product by transforming the linear resource flow into a circular flow.” (Circular-City-EU, 2019)  Unlike our current ‘linear’ economy, often referred to as the “take-make-dispose” model, CE systems consider the entire life cycle of products, materials, and resources from point of origin in the environment, through to end-of-use, recovery, and repurposing. This systems-lens also incorporates stakeholders, interactions and interdependencies, and the socio-economic construct in which the CE exists. It is an economy that is regenerative, is not reliant on virgin inputs, does not generate waste, maximizes the use of renewable resources, and retains valuable resources, through data-based, strategic, and thoughtful long-term decision-making.

It's not only about minimizing waste...
It's also about retaining value!

Value Creation within Circular Economy

The value of the CE goes well beyond the recycling of materials in their raw form; in the circular economy, value is ultimately embedded in our ability to retain the embodied energy and inherent value of product - their materials, structural forms, and functionality. Specific activities that facilitate this, called value-retention processes (VRPs), include reuse, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, recycling, anaerobic digestion, composting, energy and chemical conversion, and biosphere replenishment. Employed strategically, VRPs can enable up to 95% reduction in unit-level production emissions, without compromise to product quality or performance (IRP, 2018). Capturing, preserving, and re-employing this value not only offsets virgin material consumption and the loss of valuable materials into landfills; it enables new value creation by extending a product’s service life, ensuring resource availability by closing material-flow loops, and creating new opportunities for market access along a product’s value chain.

From this perspective, the value of materials and products far-exceed a singular stock market commodity price or the retail price tag. VRPs and CE systems can lead to cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner landscapes, healthier communities, meaningful employment, and economic growth (IRP, 2018).

A CE also reimagines how urban environments can thrive, long-term.  In the context of the urban environment (e.g. a city), CE systems must be holistic, addressing specific urban resource flows including electricity, water, food, equipment, vehicles, materials, and waste. These resource flows constitute a city’s urban metabolism and must be addressed when designing resource management systems for the urban biospheres of the future.

This transformation requires the involvement of all communities, all disciplines, all sectors, all socio-economic levels, all levels of education, and all professions; the CE is an inclusive, diverse, local, scaled, regenerative, and empowering vision for the future.

A Viable Strategy for Sustainability Leadership

Although CE is only one of many mechanisms for achieving sustainability, globally and on campus, the inherent systems-perspective and focus on eliminating negative externalities (including waste!) makes CE one of the most viable strategies for achieving sustainability and tackling climate change in the current industrial consumption-production paradigm. Achieving this vision requires a leadership approach that acknowledges both the human responsibility and opportunity to overcome challenges of climate change, resource scarcity, and poverty; a vision for the future that redefines and reimagines our current models for economic growth and profitability; a systems-perspective that extends beyond technology and infrastructure to include stakeholders and ecosystem services; and the embrace of complexity, hard work, and change.  Let’s not wait; let’s lead.

International Resource Panel (Russell/Nasr), 2018