What is the circular economy?

By Andy Kenworthy

The Sustainable Business Network has just launched its Go Circular 2025 Programme. Andy Kenworthy explains how and why we must make a rapid shift to a circular economy.

Sustainability is the ability for something to continue into the foreseeable future. For our way of life to continue, it’s important that we don’t run out of stuff, or choke on our own rubbish. Every business urgently needs to take this into account.

The circular economy is a systematic way of doing that. SBN has been working on the circular economy since 2014. It’s about redesigning products, services and systems to keep resources in use and safe circulation. That means they don’t become waste and pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

This has the potential to do more to safeguard our ailing environment than the work of conservation, restoration and regeneration, which is also vital. In fact, a circular economy is really the only way to radically reduce our impact on the natural world while meeting the needs of the world’s burgeoning population, let alone their desires.

Our ‘linear’ economy can’t cope. It’s all about ‘take, make and waste’. We dig bits of the natural world up. We smash up the bits and reshape them into the things we want. We use the things for a bit. Sometimes minutes, sometimes years. Then we bury the remnants under the soil, burn them into the air or let them float into the sea.

We might ‘recycle’ some of them once or twice. But that’s just a brief interlude before the litter, the landfill or the incinerator. Sadly, this hasn’t changed since Uncle Ug chucked his first Mammoth bone over his shoulder. But many of the materials, and our planet’s ability to process them back to nature, have.

Firstly, we got good at dragging stuff up to the surface that has troubling effects. Things like oil, radioactive materials, and heavy metals. They all cause problems when they and their emissions are left scattered about. Then we got good at making our own materials, like plastics. Natural processes take a long time to re-incorporate these back into the life-cycles of our world.

The circular economy offers us the opportunity to get this under control. Treating potentially harmful materials with the care and caution they deserve. Making sure materials that nature can’t digest are cycled safely and securely from factory to home to factory again.

Let’s take an example. On one hand there’s the linear ‘disposable’ coffee cup. It’s made from cardboard bonded to a plastic lining, with a plastic lid. Quaff the coffee and biff the cup into the bin. Off it goes to landfill. Later, alien archaeologists could discover millions of them on our denuded planet and wonder what the hell we were thinking. All those resources lost, and wasted. Trees destroyed, land degraded, a minute on the lips, centuries on Mother Nature’s hips.

Here’s a circular economy approach. A well-designed, lightweight robust coffee cup, made of toughened glass or stainless steel. You can take it with you for next time or give it back to the store. If it breaks it can be easily recycled into more cups, or something else. If it does get broken or dropped the planet can cope. It will incorporate it back into natural lifecycles soon enough.

The circular economy doesn’t mean giving up coffee. It doesn’t even mean no quick coffee on the way to the shops. It does mean doing things properly.

This thinking can be applied across the whole economy. Here are some examples of Kiwi companies doing just that:

  • Emma Lewisham. Instead of multiple containers of the same product, you can buy one container and then refills. The containers are cleverly designed with a removable inner compartment. This can be replaced when empty. When you’ve got four or more containers starting to wear out, you can send them back to the company for free. Most will be sterilised clean, refilled and go back into the system. Those that are too worn go to a specialist recycler.
  • Citizen. This collective of food and drink experts is eliminating waste from a range of products. They make craft beer using rescued unsold bread to replace a quarter of the malted barley. They make sourdough with 15% of the flour replaced with spent-grains from their brewing process. Bread, to beer, to bread again. They’ve also just launched Citizen Piquette. It’s a sparkling drink made by re-squeezing wine grapes.
  • Solo plastics. This piping company is developing the use of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE). It’s even considering how to reclaim and recycle piping after its serviceable life of up to a century!

None of this can happen in isolation. Whole systems need to change to support radically new ways of working. The right businesses have to get together to collaborate. This is especially true where one industry’s waste stream can be another industry’s materials. It’s all about thinking, designing and working systematically and collaboratively.

SBN’s Packaging Masterclass is a good example. It brings together Government initiatives, technological developments, infrastructure changes and the recycling market. Participants include everyone from supermarket executives to representatives from local authorities. They’re working together to identify, share and support the changes needed.

Then there’s SBN’s Sustainable Procurement Leaders Group. This aims to transform the way businesses in Aotearoa New Zealand buy from one another. They’re sharing what they learn via our Activator Course.

We’ve taken this work one step further with the launch of the Go Circular 2025 programme. It’s a partnership with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the Ministry for the Environment, Waste Management and Āmiomio Aotearoa. It will provide practical tools and resources to help Kiwi businesses move on this.

The programme kicked off with the release of Going Full Circle. It’s a ‘state of the nation’ report on progress towards a circular economy. It includes six key action areas to help businesses make the necessary changes.

Early in 2022 we’ll be launching a new circular economy online directory. It will feature businesses offering circular economy-based products and services. It will also include information about developing circular economy practices in your business.

There’s never been a better time to get involved.