The economy is a linear one. We extract the earth’s resources, make use of them and, subsequently, when they are beyond their useful life, we throw them away.
Clearly, the linear economy and its exponents assume that this pattern of behaviour can go on and on. However, in distinct contrast to this philosophy, the earth’s resources are limited and not infinite and, consequently, a linear economy is unsustainable.
In contrast to the linear economy, the politics of sustainable development puts forward the circular economy alternative. This signifies that a product, instead of being thrown away and ending in its ‘grave’ at the end of its useful life, gives birth to another product. This is the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which Mother Earth has been using successfully for ages.
Nature, in fact, works in this manner. Take a look at any tree. At the appropriate time, it sheds its leaves, which disintegrate in the soil below. Nature does not waste the leaves shed by the tree, as they are reused and reabsorbed through the roots of the same tree as nutrients.
The circular economy is, hence, basically an imitation of nature. In environmental-speak we call this biomimicry.
Through the office of DG Environment, the European Commission, in August 2014, published a study “to identify potential circular economy actions, priority sectors, material flows and value chains”.
The circular economy deals with much more than waste prevention and waste reduction. Eco-design is one particular area of action.
Through eco-design, the circular economy seeks to eliminate waste at the drawing board. When product ideas are still in the conceptual stage, eco-design is the tool through which such products can be planned in such a manner that they create less and less waste. This is done through subjecting the constitutive elements of the product being designed to a lifecycle assessment: that is from extraction up to end of life.
This assessment leads to the identification of all the environmental impacts of a product. Consequently, the options that result in the least environmental impacts can be selected. In addition, a lifecycle assessment will also point to the best materials to be used, such that, at the end of its useful life, a product can be easily recycled.
In their book Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart focus specifically on this aspect. They identify specific industrial and commercial initiatives that seek to dematerialise the economy as a result of which we end up doing more with less. The same level of service is achieved but, in the process, has substantially fewer material inputs: practical resource efficiency.
In addition to saving on material costs and energy, the transition from a linear to a circular economy presents numerous potential benefits. In particular, it attracts additional investment and can create thousands of jobs that realistically contribute to making the world a better place to live in.
Since last May and ending next month, the European Commission has been carrying out a public consultation to be in a position to present a circular economy strategy that would be more ambitious than that put forward by the Barroso Commission.
In the EU roadmap for a circular economy strategy, the clear focus is on innovation and job creation placed within the wider EU commitment to sustainable development.
The EU wants to decouple the strategy from waste management and, as a result, to factor in other policies such as competitiveness, research and innovation, environment protection, job creation and economic growth as the practical objectives of a revised circular economy strategy.
Addressing the 2015 European Circular Economy Conference last March, European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella emphasised that, in a circular economy, sustainability is inbuilt into the fabric of society.
I will go one further: the circular economy, if allowed to operate, will decrease the incompatibilities between the economy and nature. It will bring us closer to reality: that we live in an ecosystem which must be respected at all times and at all costs.
Carmel Cacopardo is deputy chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika.
Thursday, July 23, 2015, 00:01 by