Transitioning to Circular Economy paradigm implies a deep change in values

Mon 29, 2019 / By Aurelien Tramoy

A 6 min read article

How did we Forget that to Waste Not is to Want Not?

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s place. I would eat lunch there and spend evenings after school. They raised me in the way they lived and taught me to use everything on hand. My grandmother would darn my torn trousers and use the leftovers so as not to waste food. My grandfather would show me how vegetable peelings make good compost, how nails, screws and wooden boards can be collected from old furniture and repurposed to make a hut. And, how to look after and fix my bike to make it last.

What a change between then and now. They reused everything, now developed societies throw things away after one use, think of single use plastic coffee cups. Products filled with valuable resources are not maintained, reused or recycled. They are dumped. If my grandparents were alive today they would be appalled at such wasteful behaviour. They wouldn’t understand. Why do we mix vegetable peels with plastic bottles and, why a third of the food we produce is thrown away? (FAO, 2018). Why, they might ask, buy a new wheel when an almost new tyre is punctured? Patch it! Current attitudes reflect a business world that assumes that resources are infinite and earth’s capacity to regenerate is endless. It wasn’t true in my grandparent’s day and it’s not true now.

Since the Industrial Revolution, developed economies have grown exponentially based on a take, make and dispose, the “linear” model. Presently, businesses are beginning to realize we live in a world of finite resources, so why would we want to keep wasting valuable resources? It’s reasonable for businesses to design waste out of their products, implement manufacturing processes that utilise every flow and resource and develop business models that allow multiple value creation loops.

The two economic models discussed above reflect two different views of the world:

•The wasteful “linear” economy that extracts raw material, manufactures products, uses them and discards them. This behaviour can be seen in beam trawling fishing practices that drag the ocean floor scooping up everything in their path from fish to cold water, corals and shellfish. Their target species are shrimp or bottom-dwelling flat-fish, but the indiscriminate nature of beam trawling means hundreds of other species, the “bycatch” with no commercial value, are killed as well. This practice depletes stock dramatically for immediate profits, but jeopardises the future of the entire fishing industry.

• The regenerative “circular” economy designs out waste and continuously recirculates flows of material via closed loop systems (Figure 1.1). This is illustrated by the duck rice culture method in Japan. By combining rice growing with duck farming, farmers use ducks to weed and fertilize the ground thus saving on labour and chemicals while adding a new source of revenue (duck eggs). This practice is more profitable by design and allows farmers to sell organic rice at a premium while regenerating their land.
Source: Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation webpages (2017)

In this series of blog posts, the values underpinning both economic models are described and compared. The linear model relies on values like competition, specialization and short-term economic gains. It shaped the development of industrial societies since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Economics as a science (Stueart, 1767; Darwin, 1859; Smith 1776, Raworth, 2017). In contrast, the circular economy relies on collaboration, long-term vision and systemic thinking (Daly, 1997; Olstrom, 1990; de Rosnay, 1979; Ayres, 1994; Graedel and Allenby, 2002). An example is seen in the mutually beneficial relations between pilot fish and sharks. Sharks allow these small fishes to clean their teeth without eating them. The result? Pilot fish get fed and the shark’s free dental care. This collaborative model underpins many natural ecosystems.

The apparent conflict between the values sustaining these economic models will be questioned as their comparisons show more agreement than opposition. This complementarity of values is a common ground to successfully transition to a circular economy.

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