BACK TO THE FUTURE: CIRCULAR ECONOMY

by 31 Jan 2020

The circular economy is a new way of thinking about the economy, the only way to achieve a real sustainable development with minimization of waste, optimization of resources, respect for the environmental balance increasing the economic value, rather than decreasing it.
Balance and adaptation are the principles on which our planet has evolved over time.
Living species evolve to adapt to the environment in which they live and there are no landfills in nature, everything flows. Energy is produced by the Sun, what is useless or waste for one species is nourishment for another one which in turn feeds yet another; at the end of the life cycle the organisms decompose returning the organic matter to the soil as nutrients and the cycle is reboot.
In nature, the evolution of inorganic matter is also cyclical, we all know very well the “water cycle” and even the rocks evolve according to a cycle, the “lithogenetic cycle”. With variable times depending on the case, nature self-regenerates, adapts and thrives in balance.
Man is also a species … a species that has prevailed over all the others and that at some point, instead of adapting, began adapting the environment to its needs and doing so the natural balance was broken by a progress evolution that is too fast and unsustainable for the planet.
Starting from the industrial revolution, to ensure ever-increasing technological progress and well-being, man has adopted an economic model called “linear”:

take / make / use / dispose

which means that the raw materials are extracted /collected from the Earth, they are used to produce goods, these goods are used, then once consumed, broken or out of fashion they are thrown away.
The serious problems of this system are evident: natural resources are considered inexhaustible (and they are not), production causes pollution and produces waste, at the end of the whole process the goods produced end up in landfills and there we find ourselves facing a mountain of waste to manage, many of which are polluting and harmful.

Inevitably, such a model sets an expiration date for all species without exception for humans, because not respecting the laws of natural balance does not make us immune from them. We remain part of a more complex system and any damage done to the system is damage caused to ourselves.
To fix things, it is not enough to make small improvements to this system by simply recycling or reusing waste and neglected things. Recycling is certainly important and virtuous, but recycling a product involves a huge amount of energy because it means destroying the existing product to convert it into new material to be put back into production. On the other hand, reuse transforms worn or discarded objects into other objects that sooner or later will be thrown away again. In this way there are benefits for the environment, but the basic model is not changed, only slowed down and patched up here and there and from an economic point of view the new products maintain the same value.

Recycling and reuse are fundamental for sustainability, but they are not the solution.
Instead, they are essential gears of a new “circular” approach that does not simply seek to limit damage and protect the environment, but that brings benefits, increases resources, aim to do good and to contribute to the prosperity of the environment itself by implementing a systemic change, a revolution of the entire model, by adopting an economy that follows nature, “an economy designed to be able to regenerate itself”, “a new way of designing, producing and using things”, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The keywords on which the circular economy is based are thinking and planning or, more precisely, RE-THINK and RE-DESIGN, because the system must be changed upstream, the changes must not be made only along the way, but since design stage because is when everything else is defined and determined. Pollution and waste are direct consequence of the choices made during the product design phase, they can be considered as design defects.
The following illustration allows us to better visualize the differences of the different approaches.

The circular economy requires foresight starting from the design phase, embracing all the production, use and post-consumption phases in order to eliminate these defects. This means that pollution and waste will not be produced at all. The products are designed not only to be durable, repairable, regenerable, recyclable and ultimately reintegrated as an organic substance in the biosphere, but also not to depend on virgin materials. Recovery and reuse take place since the production phase, waste and scraps becomes new raw material that preserves prime value and quality. In addition, the products must be designed so that after use it is possible to recover the raw materials to be reintegrated into the production cycle in order to minimize as much as possible the use of natural raw materials, the use of which must be regulated by a responsible management chain.
Several constraints and obligations are imposed on industries, which must certify and implement production processes that use ecological and renewable energy sources, limit harmful emissions and are decentralized in order to promote territorial development, ethical working conditions, quality improvement and a reduction in freight transport.
Moreover, the circular economy aims to change the way we use things, to replace the concept of ownership with that of use.   Services have to be purchased instead of goods, to obtain great advantages not only for environmental protection, but also from an economic point of view. It would mean paying for the service that a product provides (e.g. phoning, doing laundry, internet browsing, etc.), leaving the ownership (e.g. mobile phone, washing machine, computer) to the manufacturer, who also provides  repairs and replacements with no other costs and takes back the used products when they are broken, obsolete or just out of style so that he can break down the various components, recovering the raw materials and put them back into the production cycle.

An economy based on eco-design allows a development that respects natural balances safeguarding the only planet we have and is able to create value and advantages in terms of competitiveness, innovation and economic savings without sacrificing quality.

Fortunately, many companies are embracing this economic model and some of them have already replaced the concept of consumer with that of user, but the road to eliminating bad old habits is a long one and must be shared globally, but it is also the only one possible towards the future.

In nature
nothing is created,
nothing is lost,
everything changes.

Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier

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