The circular economy describes a feedback-rich economy in all its embedded glories; energy, materials and information. It is one in which stocks matter, since they are the source and destination of complex flows, stock maintenance and even enhancement. Regeneration is the ideal, as well as a basic precondition of an economy which works long term. One thing the circular economy should not be confused with is some sort of perpetual gadget machine in which stuff is made and remade with nary a loss or impediment, with nothing new or unsullied: a place where eager businesses recover their products and magic them back to life for their customers with no waste. Why should they recover their products exactly? What’s wrong with an ecosystem of businesses being out there?

Perhaps it’s the misunderstanding of the “no waste” idea which causes confusion. Designing out waste does not mean having no materials losses or “zero waste”, but creating realistic materials flows in which resources are valorised elsewhere and elsewhen. It’s uneven as regards scale, or time, or comprehensiveness but should be judged on its ability for resources to be or become a nutrient (as opposed to staying a ‘poison’) and to be accessible, and accessible widely.

Zero waste?
Zero waste?

Generosity is necessary as a hallmark of the biological cycle. A tree does not need to have its leaves back, or its fruit pulp. It needs to access nutrients to thrive. The loops in the biocycle are all about spillage and loss, decomposition processes which over time and through the miracle of the biosphere as a whole can lead to regeneration. ‘Life creates conditions conducive to life’ as Janine Benyus asserts. It is a leaky, messy, diverticula bundle of flows which, in the end, can mean new plants, new insects, new soil (of course – as it is the major base of biological capital formation). Patience is mandatory. The bleached whale bones of South Georgia are just on a longer cycle than the flesh and fluids released by the harpoon and flensing knife in 1910.

In the technical cycle entropy also still wins. Stuff weakens, degrades or is contaminated, it’s just that value can be found in better business models which emphasise a more thoughtful approach to, for example, extending product life or designing for disassembly. Yes, upcycling can happen too, with sufficient energy surplus and adequate economic value in prospect. Overall, it is still better envisaged as a big picture closing of some loops, since materials do not go away and are merely transformed, rather than seeing the cycle exist in a kind of tidy, no net-virgin-material techno-nirvana.

The diagram below from materials guru Julian Allwood is instructive. So much stuff goes into infrastructure and does not emerge for decades or longer; so much stuff is in existence which will not be recoverable at anywhere near an economic value, or might have to wait some newer technology; so much stuff is technically hard to deal with – even the difference between wrought and cast aluminium make a considerable difference to the prospects for circularity, if circularity is conceived of in a naïve way.

The two flows of this distinction of aluminium are largely separate if the diagram is inspected, with almost all end of life scrap going to cast aluminium (and almost all recycling is pre-consumer/user!).



Increasing circularity is a guide, an acknowledgement that the principle is to design and use and recover, and to imagine many onward uses, while rebuilding capital stocks and valuing them rather than discounting them. It’s a different mindset, a way of thinking, an emphasis, a business opportunity in an era of what Jim Koplin from the Land Stewardship Project called “multiple, cascading ecological crises”. Growing consumer demand but declining resource quality and volatile resource prices – including energy. Does this mean that actually landfill is a great circular economy option if it’s a resource storage option?  Just dump the resources until the economics and new technologies come right. After all, new technologies are in development and trialling for recovering metals, making urban mining a practical ‘choice’? If we’re looking at longer timescales, why not? What’s a few decades between uses after all?

There’s actually quite a big difference. Design, as Bill McDonough has often said, is a sign of human intention. Take-make-dispose to landfill is a continuation of the intention that in the short term we don’t care and in the long term it’s down to human ingenuity and chance. It might be fixed; it might not. It’s the difference between a materials store and a mess. In a materials store, materials are defined, accessible, have a clear market value and if toxic kept away from the environment. It’s a ‘nutrient’ or ‘food’ store, and costs are internalised. A landfill is undefined, hard to access, a mix of toxic and non toxic. The analogy might be not so much food store as restaurant dumpster, into which the poorest might scavenge, at their own risk, or something everyone has to compete for eventually, if these resources are out of circulation. But if the true cost of landfill was paid instead of it being largely externalised, onto the public purse and the environment, it wouldn’t even make it past the business modelling. It’s a new spin on avoiding internalising costs until market conditions make the dump a resource.

A future materials store?Image: Alex E Proimos / Flickr CC BY NC
A materials store fit for the future? Image: Alex E Proimos / Flickr CC BY NC

As usual, the circular economy basics need to come into play. Here are the crucial two for this example: ‘everything is food’ and ‘prices reveal full costs’. There are also links to needing a better balance in stock/flow relationship, one which optimises the flows and restores stocks (rebuilding natural capital) while “shift towards renewables” is a general subtext. It might resolve down to the story being told, and that this lies behind McDonough’s insistence on looking at “intention”.

In the past the narrative behind the original industrial revolution was important to its uptake. It seems it is, in the end, all about political will and that needs a broad, enabling consensus. It is context. Context gives meaning and meaning a reason to articulate what is desired not merely what is disliked. Or how a situation might be gamed! Here is that earlier revolution described by Harald Welzer and with it the pervasive absence of a suitable new story revealed:

the transformation necessary today lacks guiding principles of the kind that early industrialized societies had in terms of progress, freedom, prosperity and growth. It will not be possible to establish new mental infrastructures without guiding ideas, yet if they do not dovetail almost naturally into day-to-day lives and lifestyles, visions of the self and frames of reference for the future, they will remain just that – ideas.

A 21st Century Enlightenment, like the original, is about progress, freedom, prosperity and growth, but nuanced with some of the principles which come from the move from economy as machine sitting atop the world to economy as metabolism in which we participate. It is nuanced by relating stocks to flows, by insisting that everything is a resource (food for one or other cycle) using available income not capital when it comes to energy; by setting growth within a development cycle (of birth, growth, maturity and death) by multiplying business opportunities through designing out waste and increasing natural and social capitals and using assets better (including opening up access to these assets); by making markets more effective through accurate (full cost) pricing. As Amory Lovins often says “it is abundance by design.” This is what the ‘circular’ in circular economy indicates, the use of feedback to make the system smarter, more enduring and effective; to reinvent progress . It is a long way from ‘recycling on steroids’ or a fantasy that there could be a no loss industrial system. The circular economy could indeed be part of the new story.

Lead image: Leo Reynolds / Flickr CC BY NC SA

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Ken Webster

Ken Webster

Ken Webster is Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and he is a major contributor to the development and communication of ideas in this field.