The circular economy has been described as the next industrial revolution. Designed to almost eliminate waste by using products, parts and raw materials for as long as possible, this new economic model is gaining traction among governments, businesses and consumers looking for an alternative to the current linear system of “take, make, dispose”, which is now recognized as being unsustainable.
Proponents say it could be the solution to the biggest challenges facing the planet: population growth, dwindling natural resources and climate change. But it’s going to require the involvement of everyone.
“We are at a stage where we have to do this because resources are becoming more scarce, and we have impacted the planet on a massive scale,” says Dr Julia Stegemann, a professor of environmental engineering at University College London and joint initiator of the UCL Circular Economy Laboratory. “We are reaching a point where there’s no turning back, and if we want to live in a sustainable way we need to make these radical changes.”
We are reaching a point where there’s no turning back, and if we want to live in a sustainable way we need to make these radical changes.
Dr Julia Stegemann, a professor of environmental engineering at University College London and joint initiator of the UCL Circular Economy Laboratory
It’s an age-old system that is incredibly simple: Instead of throwing away stuff that has stopped working or isn’t needed anymore, you reuse, re-manufacture or recycle it. And it’s already happening.
Swedish fashion retailer H&M has set up a global collection system for unwanted garments that are reused or recycled into new clothes or cleaning rags. Since 2013, it has gathered more than 28,000 tonnes of clothes and textiles – the equivalent of more than 120 million T-shirts – that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill or been burned.
French automaker Renault is another company introducing circularity into its business model. It has a remanufacturing plant where everything from water pumps to engines is overhauled and sold at 50 to 70 percent of the normal selling price. The plant generates more than 250 million euros a year in revenue and is profitable.
UK telecommunications giant Vodafone has a trade-in service to encourage customers to return their old mobile and tablet devices in exchange for a discount on a new gadget or store credit. The returned items are refurbished and resold or the components stripped and recycled.