It’s now week three of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Inside the Circular Economy’ programme and I’m having a great time. Each week there’s a webinar on the Wednesday and a follow-up session on the Friday. And in between there’s a whole lot going on in the Slack group. I’m learning more about what the circular economy is – and what it isn’t!

It’s not ‘recycling on steroids’

When we talk about the circular economy, you might think it means recycling. And that is definitely part of it. But recycling is expensive, requires energy and isn’t the best way to make the most of materials.
The circular economy aims to start right at the design phase of a product, thinking about what will happen when it reaches the end of its lifetime. Can it be repaired or repurposed? Can broken components be replaced? Can it easily be separated again into its various materials? In a circular economy, waste is designed out of the process from the beginning and there are other ways to keep products in circulation before we have to turn to recycling.

It’s not a single circle

If you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s graphic here, you’ll see that the circular economy is more complex than just a single circle. This is known as the butterfly diagram, and as you can see it a ‘wing’ on each side. The one on the left represents the biological cycle, and the one on the right is the technical cycle.
The biological cycle concerns those products that are biodegradable. It’s all about regenerating our natural systems, aiming to use renewable resources rather than non-renewable ones, for example choosing renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, and making sure valuable nutrients return to the soil rather than being wasted.
The technical cycle, on the right of the diagram, is restorative. It has multiple loops that represent different ways we can preserve the usefulness of products, components and materials, keeping them circulating for longer. As you can see, recycling is the outermost loop in the diagram. This is because it is a last resort option. The inner loops represent repairing, reusing or refurbishing products – options that are preferable to recycling and should be turned to first.

It’s not just about us all buying wooden toothbrushes

Yes, we can take individual action by choosing to buy more sustainable products, but wouldn’t it be better if all the choices on offer were sustainable from the outset? Also, not everyone can afford to be a green warrior. Not everyone’s budget allows them to choose sustainable options across the board.

As individuals we definitely can and should join the debate, but the real changes will be made further upstream, by businesses. Hundreds of companies have already realised how the circular economy will enable them to reduce costs, generate new sources of revenue and manage risks. And they are the ones with the power to change the system as they make choices about how materials are sourced, which materials to use and how products are designed for reuse and repurposing from the beginning.

It’s not a quick fix

The circular economy is not simply a way of improving the current system. It involves rethinking the whole economic model, finding new ways of bringing products to consumers. Zero Waste Scotland gives these examples of possible circular economy business models:

– Hire & Leasing

Instead of buying products, consumers hire or lease them.

– Performance/service system

A shift from selling a product to providing a service. For example instead of selling lamps, a company might offer a lighting service, providing lamps and lighting fixtures which are replaced when necessary. The company retains ownership of the products, so they are more motivated to a) make sure products are built to last and b) take responsibility for what happens at the end of the product lifecycle.

– Incentivised return

Customers are offered an incentive for returning products when they have finished with them. The products can then be refurbished and sold to new customers. It makes it easier and even profitable for customers to return products to the cycle rather than throwing them into the back of a cupboard.

– Asset management

Organisations track their assets in order to monitor what can be repaired or perhaps re-used at another site. Again, this avoids the scenario where products that could have a useful life are put aside and eventually end up in landfill.

– Collaborative consumption

Products are shared between members of the public or businesses, for example car-sharing.

– Long life

Products are designed to last rather than be replaced after a couple of years.

Models such as these ensure that products stay in use for longer rather than ending up in landfill or languishing, unused, in a draw or cupboard.


So those are a few things I’ve learned so far. This week’s webinar topic is ‘Thinking in Systems’ – I’ll keep you posted!