Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Case for a Circular Economy

A section of a landfill located in Barclay, Ontario.
GARBAGE. It stinks! As global population increases, so does the amount of garbage produced. The EPA defines the main activities of an integrated solid waste management program. Waste prevention—often called source reduction—means reducing waste by not producing it.
Recycling makes use of materials that otherwise would become waste by turning them into valuable resources. Another form of recycling is composting—the controlled aerobic biological decomposition of organic matter, such as food scraps and plant matter, into humus, a soil-like material. Combustion is the controlled burning of waste in a designated facility to reduce its volume and, in some cases, to generate electricity.
Properly designed, constructed, and managed landfills provide a safe alternative to uncontrolled dumping.

It is estimated that the average person generates over 4 pounds of trash every day and about 1.5 tons of solid waste per year. Americans make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year, of which approximately 21 tons is food waste. The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. To me, the obvious alternative to attempting to safely dispose of tons of garbage is to make less of it. That brings us back to waste prevention.

Cradle-to-cradle design is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste free. The model in its broadest sense is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many aspects of human civilization such as urban environments, buildings, economics and social systems.

In 2002, Michael Braungart and William McDonough published a book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a manifesto for cradle to cradle design that gives specific details of how to achieve the model. The model has been implemented by a number of companies, organizations and governments around the world, predominantly in the European Union, China and the United States. All design and engineering students should be required to read this book! Watch William McDonough’s TED talk here.

Image from www.circle-economy.com
Circular economy is all about closing resource loops, mimicking natural ecosystems in the way society and businesses are organized. The social and ecological impact of our actions should also be taken into account, and the use of renewable energy to make the transition towards a circular economy happen is paramount. To the left, you will see six principles for a successful circular economy.

The business case for a circular economy is compelling. Analysis by McKinsey & Company estimates shifting towards circularity could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs within the next five years. Inspired by her record-breaking solo sail around the world, Dame Ellen MacArthur founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, working in education, business innovation and analysis to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

The Circular Economy 100 is a global platform bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy over a 1000-day (3 year) period. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters, Project MainStream was established as a multi-industry, CEO-led global initiative to accelerate a series of business-driven innovations and help scale the circular economy.

Let’s hope that these initiatives succeed in transforming our world from a waste-generating linear economic model, to a healthy, sustainable, circular economy. Get educated, do the research, and find ways to become a part of the process.

Until next time…become the change you imagine.

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