Imagine what the circular economy could do for us

Written by: Ken Webster | Published:
Ken Webster, head of innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The circular economy, where an increasing number of products are sold as services and the priority is extending product life as much as possible, will be truly disruptive and won’t immediately benefit everyone – but it will be worth it, says Ken Webster, head of innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

To some people the circular economy is just recycling on steroids, a close-the-loop-for-fun-and-profit exercise. Not just an exercise, of course – with millions in value being lost through our take-make-dispose economy, the potential for profit is there. But (there is always a ‘but’) the circular economy is also about slowing down the resource cycle through an emphasis on product life extension coupled with enabling business models such as selling products as services. This is where we have yet to see a full flowering of the changes we can expect. It will have an enormous impact on the materials business. It may be that if you are in anything but the municipal waste business, the post-consumer packaging and ‘stuff’ business, then there is both good and bad news.

Take just two trends on the horizon, e.g. Transportation-as-a-Service (TaaS). A recent report from RethinkX (https://www.rethinkx.com) projects havoc in the automobile industry with autonomous electric vehicles. Here is just a taste of it:

“As fewer cars travel more miles, the number of passenger vehicles on American roads will drop from 247 million to 44 million [around 2030], opening up vast tracts of land for other, more productive uses. Nearly 100 million existing vehicles will be abandoned as they become economically unviable.”

Design to reduce waste

At a recent Future of Construction shindig in London, there was a great deal about ‘build to rent’ and ‘real estate as a service’, plus ‘off site’ construction – prefabrication to you and me – which not only, variously, encourages design to last and design to reduce waste, but also design for upgradability; cut that property refurbishment waste right down and the demolition waste that comes with end of life.

Needless to say, adding a design-for-disassembly dimension and the capture of reusable components would be design-led and digitally enabled.

Examples exist of buildings which have contracts with the materials suppliers for the return of valuable components after a building’s expected life. In short, it’s not going to go to the average recycler in the average sort of way. The aim for some is ‘mass customisation at the efficiency of mass production’. And lightweighting. Better design to meet structural needs can slash materials needs.

Surely, it’s a coming together of design, business models, digital modelling and additive manufacture which is slashing through materials volumes while offering improved utility, and improved service from significant durables. Once more there is plenty of stuff in the system now and the immediate future to recover and recycle or manage as waste, but in the medium term probably not so much.

Recycling is a consequence of a badly designed industrial system and the inevitability of the operation of the second law of thermodynamics. It will always be needed therefore, but imagining the changes in just the automobile (transport) sector and construction is salutary. So, what about something more mundane, like apparel? Amazon has received
a US patent for an automated on-demand clothing production system.

Here’s the link (https://qz.com/963381/amazon-amzn-has-patented-an-automated-on-demand-clothing-factory/).

When customers call the shots

What if clothing no longer needs to be made in faraway places, through dubious labour practices and using guesswork as to how many of each size and style is going to be sold?
Sell it before you make it. Imagine the waste that would be eliminated from the system if customer demand is leading directly to the supply of what fits and what is wanted. Mass customisation again.

Dealing with post-consumer waste will not go away, and indeed, having manufacture closer to markets also means it is closer to piles of used apparel, which can become quality recycled fibre. Let’s see what happens, but the Amazon patent notes its application to “footwear, bedding, curtains, towels” and using materials “including but not limited to paper, plastic, leather, rubber and other materials”.

It’s a fantastic prospect for production and the seriousness of it is that this is driven by a convergence of technologies and economics rather than by regulation. The classic image of the careful consumer rethinking the fate of their objects is not doing much to change hearts and minds, but as an on-demand service economy allies with mass customisation and highly efficient, cost-lowering techniques, the critical resource-saving decisions are being increasingly made elsewhere at last – and with luck, many so-called waste streams will shrink; after the current materials feast is devoured.

Sure, it’s probably all going to add to unemployment, stranded assets and disruption, but for resource and materials, the news could be good in a global sense. And that’s what matters, isn’t it? What do you mean ‘maybe’?


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