What is the “Circular Economy”?
If you ask an economist, a farmer, and a scientist what they believe the “circular economy” entails, you are likely to hear different responses. In one sense, adapting one’s company to a circular economy means maximizing the life cycle of a product. In another sense, growing the circular economy means finding new uses for natural byproducts, salvaging value wherever possible. And in a broader sense, designing for the circular economy means crafting symbiotic or integrated systems where interactions among producers and individuals are adapted to complement one another, maximizing resource efficiency.
Thinking outside the box
Each of these interpretations are helpful for unlocking the full potential of the circular economy mindset and none should be neglected. Here are some useful questions and insights shared by those who have experimented in the circular economy.
For those looking to extend the life cycle of a given product, these are some helpful strategies:
- Can the product be redesigned for easier recycling? Can you change the materials, partner with a group who can recycle the current materials, or redesign the product entirely?
- Can you extend the durability of a product so that fewer are produced? Can you make the product more easily serviceable or refurbishable?
- Can you reclaim products at the end of their life-span to ensure the resources aren’t lost?
- E.g. Some companies lease or buy back their products from consumers, helping the company reclaim up to 90% of their original materials so they can be properly recycled or reused.
For those looking to maximize the value of byproducts:
- If a process is known to generate unused material as a byproduct, look for external evaluators who can help you to determine the untapped potential of those lost resources. One person’s trash is another’s treasure!
- One ironic example of this can be seen in the growth of the dairy alternative industry. In particular, as almond farms have grown to keep up with the demand for almond milk, the amount of ostensibly unusable material, like almond husks, on those farms has also grown. One creature who can make use of these husks, however, is the dairy cow. Adding the husks to their feed is highly nutritious and it turns an otherwise lost resource into milk for consumption.
- You can also look at this from the other angle: do you see any byproducts in other industries that you would love to have access to?
- Furthermore, if you see unnecessary waste or byproduct generation, ask if there are opportunities for new methods that produce fewer byproducts or do so at a lower rate.
Finally, here are some tips for integrating the circular economy at the macro level:
- Look for opportunities to cross-pollinate with other entities. In other words, one of the most common obstacles is not realizing how external agents can be relevant to your own field, especially when their relation seems unorthodox.
- For example, BASF had a major breakthrough when their experts took polymer and gel technologies, originally developed for use in diapers and vitamin coatings, and applied them to crop protection formulations, producing what is known as a capsule suspension. This enabled easy, uniform, and controlled applications of crop treatments with effective and accurate results.
- On an individual level, consider if behavioral changes are needed to unlock the viability of a certain system.
- For example, if you could make use of a certain farm byproduct, but there currently is no easy way to collect that material, can you incentivise, educate, or otherwise encourage farmers to behave in a way that facilitates its collection?
- What changes would be needed to make your ideal system possible?
- Last, can you see any missed opportunities for creating ‘symbiotic’ relationships between whole industries and major producers? What blind spots do these industries have and how could they collaborate more easily at a large scale? You don’t simply want to maximize vertical efficiency, you want to integrate systems horizontally.
These are some helpful starting points for exploring the potential of the circular economy mindset in your own field. For some, it will be easier to start small and maximize value in a very specific place. For others, starting large by looking for complementarities at the industry level will be the next step. Either way, it is beneficial to all kinds of individuals and organizations to make the most of our precious resources.