Circular Economy: Setting the Stage
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Circular Economy: Setting the Stage

Amelia Seah
Amelia Seah

Table of Contents

Photo by Lacey Williams on Unsplash

Introduction

The most damaging phrase in the language is
"We’ve always done it this way"
- Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Pioneering computer scientist

In times of disruption and change, staying constant would only cost us our future.

This is a two part introductory series to the Circular Economy model:

  1. The past and present - the importance of materials, their impact on our world today and our over-reliance on the Take-Make-Waste (Linear) Model.
  2. The present vs ideal solution - moving beyond recycling to a circular economy.

As we gradually transit into a post-COVID world, our behaviours will be drastically altered. And with change, opportunities presented are abundant. To appreciate the potential, we first should seek to understand our past.

The Importance of Materials

The backstory: A long time ago, almost 400,000 years to be precise, our ancestors were faced with extreme environmental changes that required them to adapt their behaviours and culture. This was carried out through the extraction of resources from the Earth, to develop, modify, and trade them.

  • The common weapon then was made of fist-sized stones. Some of these materials chosen to craft the tools weren’t available locally, which signified the use of trade networks.

During the Stone Age, heat and energy was unleashed in charcoal to get temperatures hot enough to smelt metals for tools and weapons. Fast forward to 3 centuries ago, humans discovered how to harness coal to make steam, which then evolved converting oil and gas into the energy source we mostly still tap on today.

We have been so good at extracting resources from the Earth that we’ve been taking far more than we should. Since 1970, the demand for ecological resources (e.g. agriculture, materials) exceeds what the Earth can regenerate within the year. With each passing year, the yearly budgeted resources get exhausted earlier than the previous years. The date in which this happens is called Earth Overshoot Day.

  • Accurate? Some experts argue that the calculations of Earth Overshoot Day falls short, as it does not consider the environmental consequences of how these resources were managed - soil erosion, overuse of water reserves, etc.
  • So that means: The measure by Global Footprint Network underestimates our overuse of the planet’s resources. “[But] to make reliable adjustments would require data sets that do not exist,” founder of Global Footprint Network, Wackernagel explained.
We are borrowing Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present.
- Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network CEO

How did we get to this point?

The rise in “throwaway living”: The term was first coined in 1955 in a magazine article that celebrated disposable solutions. The article focused on the time saved for “housewives” that would have been spent cleaning plates, utensils, towels, etc. otherwise. There were other several benefits crucial to people then - hygiene, status symbolism, and jobs.

It started out with a wish, how did it end up like this?

Mass consumption isn't a recent phenomenon. It has its roots traced back to post-World War II, with its origin surfacing even earlier in the century. America became an era of high-mass consumption with the rise in post-war family incomes. The redistribution of income to the growing middle class resulted in an expanded market for homes, cars, appliances, and services. Post-war affluence enabled widespread ownership.

  • Consumer behaviour: The fairly equal rise in wealth among suburban dwellers meant that their new-found social status and prestige had to be communicated through other forms - possessions. E.g. Cars became a commodity to possess with pride rather than a service purchased for its utility. The perception of economic system shifted from need and scarcity, to one based on abundance and desire.
  • Planned obsolescence: Manufacturers began tapping into consumers’ desires (to broadcast their status in society) by introducing new product models every year. Newer models only had superficial modifications, but these changes signaled “progress” to customers. Design became a social language to announce one’s position on the social ladder, and a good gauge of social mobility based on what was owned from one year to the next.

Altering the product to give it a fashionable and modern look meant virtually guaranteeing it would look out-of-trend in 2 to 3 years. This was style obsolescence planned by manufacturers.

  • Economic rationale: Manufacturers believed making new product models yearly to ‘stimulate the urge to buy’ in consumers was justifiable. That the flow of merchandise to customers meant creation of jobs and growth for industries, leading to national prosperity. The American economic system became increasingly dependent on high-consumption as the means of creating wealth.

Consumers and manufacturers both contributed to this self-fulfilling system. Style obsolescence was justified by manufacturers with the public’s expectations of new and better products every year; so there must be new ideas and new designs. Style obsolescence became a representation of the niceties of social status sought by consumers.

By the late 1950s, Britain caught on with the “American way” of hyper-consumption.

Technology also played a part in fuelling mass consumption. Technological advancements and globalisation made buying new products cheaper than repairing old models - especially when domestic labour and product parts were costly. Obsolescence was no longer controlled by manufacturers, but was an inevitable consequence of an advanced technological society.

Times weren’t always like this

During World War II, a campaign - Make Do and Mend flourished across France, United Kingdom, and America. It was advertised as a patriotic duty by governments to encourage citizens to take good care of their personal belongings, and seek creative ways to repair and reuse their existing clothes. This was necessary since clothing factories were transformed for war effort to produce uniforms and other war accessories (parachutes, maps, and gunpowder bags) which required the use of raw materials like silk. Thus, buying new clothes was rationed in Britain with the scarcity of fabric.

Make do and Mend taught people how to cut, and sew through publicity materials (promotional posters, booklets, series of instructional leaflets) explaining sewing tips. Classes spun up across Britain as people formed Make do and Mend groups to help each other revive their old clothes.

Quick recap

  • Rise in disposable income among the middle-class after World War II led to a change in consumer behaviour.
  • Consumers began desiring new products frequently to signal their social status.
  • Manufacturers integrated style obsolescence in big-ticketed items (e.g. refrigerators and cars) to drive sales.
  • Soon after, every level of commodity from inexpensive paper tissues to costly white goods became expendable for every level of society (not just the middle-class).
  • This new found convenience drove demand for disposable items.

Where we are today

The invention of the steam engine leading to the rise of industrial revolution, followed by the events that unfolded in post-World War II (mentioned above), coupled with brisk technological advancements and globalisation, brings us to where we are now - heavy reliance on the Take-Make-Waste Model.

Adapted from: Thibaut Wautelet

The now-story: Also commonly known as the linear model, Take-Make-Waste involves extracting finite natural resources (Take) to make products which are used (Make), until the products no longer serve its purpose (Waste). Occasionally, these products are still functional yet they are discarded since users no longer need or want them, and it is of minimal cost for the products to be thrown away.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Take-Make-Waste

The good: The Industrial Revolution has brought unprecedented prosperity to most of the world’s economy. The resulting innovations have enabled society to gain access to products from all around the globe at affordable prices. These material comforts were unthinkable to the previous generations - quality of life has increased and mortality rates have decreased.

The bad: Take-Make-Waste was established as a successful model on misconstrued assumptions.

  1. There are infinite natural resources (energy and raw materials) available to be extracted with the Earth’s limitless regenerative capacity.
  2. Material inputs are cheap. In reality, the cost of these resources discount the cost of externalities e.g. the pollution and emissions that comes with extraction of materials.
  3. There will always be an “away” (another place) to throw away our items.

These assumptions may be held true back when our global population was at 1 billion people in the early 1800s. As of January 2021, we’re at 7.8 billion people. What has worked then, is no longer working for us now. Natural resources are depleting faster than they can regenerate to satiate the demand of our global population.

Total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the US and per capita waste generation

Source: EPA.gov, US Census Bureau

The present linear model depends on hyper-consumption - producing and selling as much as possible, to create value in our economic system. But this process has become unsustainable as we continue growing our economy.

The ugly: The Take-Make-Waste model has resulted in severe environmental ramifications, which has triggered spillover effects on society and the economy. In every stage of the linear model, negative impacts manifest in various ways causing harm to our health, the environment, and the economy.

The 3 stages of Take-Make-Waste affects our ecosystem in different ways.

  • Take: Collecting raw materials demands high usage of energy and water, produces emissions of toxic substances, and causes disruption to natural capital - the environment in which the materials are extracted from.
  • Make: Often accompanied by high energy, water consumption, and toxic emissions.
  • Waste: Areas in natural spaces are taken up to store discarded products. With exposure to the changes in weather, toxic chemicals would leach into the ground and water supply. While, emissions (e.g. methane generated from organic waste rotting in landfill) gets released. Incineration plants release several pollutants that lead to health deterioration and damage.

“We can recycle it though”

There's more to recycling than meets the eye. Recycling is a profit-driven industry faced with process limitations and industry gaps contributed by governments, businesses and the society. There are potential solutions that could patch up these gaps and make the global recycling industry efficient. But, at the end of the day, recycling merely solves the symptom of the waste and environmental problem rather than fixing the root cause.

The better alternative: the circular economy

Circular economy aims to optimise to resources by reducing resource consumption, pollution and waste in every step of the product’s life cycle. Resources are made to last several lifecycles beyond just recycling.

This system changes the way value is created and preserved, through rent, reuse, redistribution, remanufacturing, refurbish, or repair. Enhancing a product’s lifespan allows our natural systems to be restorative and regenerative. Production methods are also altered to be sustainable for the economy, environment and the society.

The circular economy presents benefits that would positively impact businesses, the economy, society and the environment. Just as with every system, the circular economy concept faces its own set of challenges too (which we will explore in future articles). Some of which are within the control of governments and businesses, while others that are beyond the control of any entity - technical and unintended consequences.

However, this alternative reveals design opportunities, cost savings, new customer propositions and value creation potential for businesses that will be less damaging to the environment as compared to the present take-make-waste system.



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