What is the circular economy?
The cornerstone of a society model based on sustainable development, the circular economy is an economic concept in direct opposition to the « linear » economy. The latter is based on the use of natural resources available in large quantities for the production of goods, and their consumption. In contrast, the circular economy supposes a scarcity of resources and thus recommends responsible use and management of them. This implies a model of society that optimizes stocks and flows of materials, energies and waste. It is called « circular » because it does not generate waste: scrap is used, becoming a resource in turn. The circular economy thus functions in a loop.
The basic principles of the circular economy
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, created by the celebrated British sailor in 2010 to promote the circular economy, defines it as a “restorative” and thus intrinsically virtuous system. The system is based on seven pillars, according to ADEME (the French energy development and control agency):
● Sustainable extraction of resources
Obtaining supplies of resources must be carried out responsibly, i.e. by limiting the waste linked with operations, and reducing the activity’s impact on the environment, particularly as regards fossil energies and the use of agricultural or forestry land.
With the Évian impluvium, the APIEME Association protects the water resources by assessing and limiting the impact of human activity on the environment, preserving wetland and supporting farmers who introduce more environmentally-friendly solutions.
● Eco design
For example, the production of bio-sourced plastics, i.e. produced using plants and thus biodegradable. This is the aim of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, co-founded by Danone with other agri-food groups and the WWF.
● Industrial ecology
An iconic illustration of industrial ecology goes back to the 1970s, when six organizations at the Kalundborg site in Denmark (including the city hall, a power station, a plasterboard manufacturer and a biotechnology company) joined forces in order to use the waste of one entity as an energy source for the others. Today, the Kalundborg Symbiosis still functions as a network for exchanging water, energy and sub-products resulting from the activities carried out at the site.
● The economy of functionality
One of the best-known and most widespread example of the economy of functionality is the existence of bike-, car- and scooter-share services in major cities (Vélov’ in Lyon, Santander Cycles in London, Autolib’ in Paris, etc.). Increasingly numerous tool-sharing platforms like SharingPlace are another version of this approach
● Responsible consumption
For example, there are many mobile apps to help consumers make enlightened choices. They include GoodGuide, which scans the barcode of a product and shows its performances in social, environmental and health terms.
● Extension of useful life
Built-in obsolescence is a thing of the past: consumers can repair their items, reuse second-hand products or do a bit of upcycling (a process in which used materials are converted into something of higher value in their second life).
L’Increvable, a washing machine dreamed up by young French designers to last for 50 years. The machine “was designed in response to the excesses of built-in obsolescence and the throwaway culture”, and is designed to be easily repaired by users themselves.
● Recycling and upcycling
The last stage in the circular economy, recycling makes it possible to reintegrate raw materials from waste into the economic circuit. But this waste can also be “augmented” in the re-use process. Because they are given more value, they are called “upcycled”.
The site Upcyclethat.com lists start-ups operating in the upcycling niche and also provides all sorts of tutorials for upcycling products lying around in the house or garage. Here we see a lamp made with old motorcycle parts by the start-up Classified Moto.
For the industry, the circular economy represents a remarkable opportunity to produce goods in a more environmentally-friendly way, innovate in the actual design of products and invent new economic models. From consumers to companies and cities, from the World Economic Forum in Davos to NGOs, numerous players are making efforts to think up and construct local or global circular economy projects. All initiatives that should enable the circular economy to get a foothold with the general public as an enduring and effective model of society.