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The Circular Economy

Over the coming years you are going to hear about the Circular Economy on a daily basis, if not on an hourly basis! It has generally been agreed that the Circular Economy holds the key to stopping – if not reversing – the current damage being done to the environment. Such is the belief that the Circular Economy represents the future, that the Irish Government has even appointed a Minister (albeit a Junior Minister) to be responsible for the Circular Economy (though it remains very disappointing to see the Government’s own website ignore that fact).

So, what the hell is the Circular Economy – and Circular by Design, I hear you ask!

To understand Circular by Design, we first need to get our heads around the Circular Economy – and to understand the Circular Economy and just how critical it has become – it is necessary to first understand how we got to where we are in terms of our destruction of the environment. My blog post of January 30th 2023 looked at the introduction of planned obsolescence as industry’s way of getting us to buy more stuff that we really didn’t need (we may want it; we certainly don’t need it!). And it is that planned obsolescence, coupled with the Linear Economy that industry has championed up to now, that is – in my view – fully responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in.

The Linear Economy?

The Linear Economy is a model based on an obvious beginning and an even more obvious end: we start by taking raw materials and turning them into something, then using it and then dumping it. From an economics point of view, it’s the perfect model - it generates wealth at every stage and remains self-fulfilling. Take for example the humble pair of denim jeans: cotton is woven into denim, jeans are designed and manufactured, we then wear them and when finished we dump them into landfill! (Lest you lose all interest now by identifying what appears to be a fatal flaw in my denim jeans example (“…when finished we dump them into landfill”) – surely, we recycle them? The sad reality is that no, we actually don’t recycle them, and the recycling industry considers your typical pair of denim jeans to be so contaminated (their words, not mine) that landfill remains the only end-of-life option! But more on that later.)

So, we can hopefully see that a Linear Economy makes little sense – particularly from an environmental perspective. However, it has been the coming together of Planned Obsolescence and the Liner Economy that has done – and continues to do – the greatest damage to the planet. Take our mobile phone as an example – again it makes perfect sense from an economic point of view to use a linear model, particularly when we can design obsolescence into the device. Why – from an economic standpoint – would we want to design a mobile phone that actively discourages us to replace it with a new one?

Not only would you not want to design a mobile phone that could compete with future models, why not design them so that they perform worse with age? Apple have acknowledged that they actually do this – they design throttling into their devices, slowing them as they age and forcing them to run out of energy earlier than they should – encouraging users to buy more up-to-date devices. In a statement, Apple said that the goal of the battery-related slowing was “to deliver the best experience for customers” – please stop laughing now!!!

The mobile device industry lags some way behind the auto industry though, the latter using the combo of the linear model and designed obsolescence as the very basis of their economic model. Take for example the current Volkswagen Golf, the MK8. First things first – the MK8 was a MK7 with different body panels, a different interior, different wheels and a higher price! It was made to look very different to the MK7 simply to make it look new, more up-to-date and more desirable. Under the shiny new skin though, it retained the same engines, same chassis, same brakes, same everything! But here’s the even more interesting bit: several potential features of the MK8 were withheld on launch, only to be made available as standard at the mid-life upgrades. LED lights for example – they were only available as a very expensive option on launch – now standard! Intelligent cruise control – again a very expensive launch option, now standard! It’s no mistake that every new car released has several trim levels, which are inevitably replaced with newer, sleeker, better-looking ones very shortly after. From gimmicky features with short shelf lives to aesthetic obsolescence in the form of limited editions, car companies know how to reach a comprehensive niche. If their car looks old after two years, those who want to keep up with the times and the Joneses (which apparently is most of us!) are likelier to ditch their last purchase for something new.

The masters in all of this nonsense is however the fashion industry! Nobody does it better! They design and make something today that is simply completely unfashionable tomorrow! Genius! What colour is “in” for 2024, I hear you ask?

So, for 2024, that will be Lime, Red, Blue, Pink…Sage, Lavender (since when is Lavender an actual colour?).

And 2025 please?

We have Intense Rust (I had a car that colour once – it was white with patches of Intense Rust), Eco Black, Midnight Plum, Sustained Grey, Cool Matcha and Apricot Crush. And 2026 please? Don’t ask!

The fashion industry continues to build its success on telling customers what will be trending in two-years’ time (interestingly they need two years in order to design products and dye the fabrics in the colours they somehow know customers will want in two years). It is an industry that – in my opinion – has never ever considered what a customer might want, instead putting all its efforts into telling customers what they need to wear in order to be on-trend.

So successful is the fashion industry in convincing customers that this years

offering is so much “better” than last years, that over 60% of

fashion items produced is disposed of in under 12-months.

And why would they do things any differently when their sole motivator is profit?

There you have it – my take on the Linear Economy, how it joined forces with Planned Obsolescence and became a monster.

Let’s switch focus to the Circular Economy:

The eagle-eyed of you will notice that the Circular Economy is really nothing more than the Linear Economy with a few back arrows thrown in – and in some ways you may be right! There is fundamentally nothing wrong with the Linear Economy, only in the way we have adapted it and used it. The key differences between the two are:

1. We need to significantly expand the Use phase of the model – by keeping that iPhone longer, by not upgrading that Volkswagen Golf or by wearing that same outfit to two (rather than just one) family wedding. We need to switch our focus to the actual product and develop socially acceptable ways of using a product until it becomes unusable rather than untrendy.

2. Industry needs to look at remanufacturing / refurbing products so that the life of every product is extended. A great example of this is Renault – who have now started doing exactly this in France.

3. Recycle original raw materials at product end-of-life thereby reducing the amount of “new” raw materials actually needed. Volkswagen are just one of the many companies actively working through imminent solutions in this area and already has some solutions that see glass, rubber and carpets returned to the supply chain as raw materials.

Ultimately, as we move closer to a true Circular Economy, that “Linear Economy with a few back arrows thrown in” becomes more of a unique Circular Model where we see zero waste.

The three key challenges in becoming a truly Circular Economy are:

PRIORITISE REGENERATIVE RESOURCES – fixing the upstream problems around energy, water, waste, toxic chemicals etc and ensure renewable, reusable, non-toxic resources are utilised as materials and energy is used in an efficient way.

STRETCH THE LIFETIME – maintain, repair and upgrade resources in use to maximise their lifetime and give them a second life through take-back strategies etc.

USE WASTE AS A RESOURCE – utilise waste streams as a source of secondary resources and recover waste for reuse and recycling.

As a rule of thumb, in terms of reduction of CO2, the first of these – the upstream bit has the potential to deliver 60% of the solution with the remaining 40% fairly evenly split between the other two. Which is where Circular by Design comes into play!

Circular by Design is where a product is explicitly designed – from concept stage, through manufacturing, distribution, use, reuse, recycle – to be a truly circular product. By way of example, let’s pretend that Apple had decided to use the Circular by Design methodology when designing the iPhone 8. The finished product would feature:

1. A battery that could be changed for a new one, and a process that would see the old battery returned to Apple to be recycled in some way.

2. Software that would allow the phone to be quicker as it got older (rather than what Apple have actually done!).

3. A more robust housing to prevent damage (the back of the latest iPhone is actually glass – the cynic in me suggests that again is classic designed obsolescence).

4. Interchangeable covers / outer housings that prevent anyone distinguishing which model / how old the handset actually is.

5. Designed in such a way that key components could (and would) be reused if recycled. The zero-waste handset.

6. A takeback programme that allows a trade-in value if the customer decides to upgrade – the older the handset, the MORE the trade-in value!

And back to that pair of denim jeans! I mentioned earlier that the recycling industry consider the humble denim jeans to be contaminated, and for good reason! They are a mix of material – denim fabric, polyester thread, mild steel fasteners (studs), brass (zipper) and leather (label).

So, in terms of recyclability, the effort (cost) of dismantling the product into its recyclable parts is greater than the cost of producing new parts. So landfill is the answer.

Were you to use the Circular by Design principles in designing the denim jeans of the future you would have no studs (trust me, they don’t serve any purpose), cotton thread (at least if it goes to landfill it will decompose quite quickly), an alternative to a brass zipper (buttons anyone?) and no leather label.

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