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Circulate on Fridays: Circular Economy in Africa, Energy and Mobility, Make Your Own Shoes

Every Friday, Circulate provides a roundup of some of the best circular economy articles, videos and podcasts that we’ve seen during the week. This Friday, we’re looking the growth of circular economy thinking in Africa, how some big brands are stating their bold ambitions, and Nissan’s role in developing a decentralised energy grid.

ASU explore circular economy in Africa

“If the circular economy’s such a good idea, why isn’t it happening yet?”

If you’re a proponent of this new way of doing things, you might have heard this once or twice. One reason might be ‘linear lock in’. The way that our systems and incentives are set up create a level of inertia mean the switch to a regenerative, restorative model won’t happen in a couple of years.

Image: Arizona State University
Image: Arizona State University

At least that’s the story in Western developed nations. What about in rapidly emerging economies? There’s some thinking that these countries could ‘leapfrog’ the linear, throughput way of doing things and get on the fast track to a circular economy. Nigeria is one such country, was the location for the first ever ‘Introduction to Ethical Circular Economy’ workshop, hosted by  Arizona State University. The three-day workshop was coordinated by ASU’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, and invited 35 participants at the Sustainability School Lagos to consider how the circular economy could deliver benefits for their city. We often hear how the circular economy could be the framework for thinking that could help tackle some of today’s challenges in more economically-developed countries, and initiatives like this are crucial in exploring how the model could address challenges in emerging markets, as Olufemi Olarewaju explains:

“The biggest problems facing a rapidly urbanizing developing economy like Nigeria are inherently social in nature and include inequality, youth unemployment, poor public education and health systems, poor sanitation, poor habitation, inadequate water supply and energy inequity. Successful implementation of circular economy as a sustainable development paradigm for our part of the world must mean that it delivers solutions to these challenges.”

Olufemi Olarewaju, Executive Director and Faculty Member of Sustainability School Lagos

Some 4000+ miles away, the Rwandan government also state circular economy ambitions, reported by Rwanda Eye. At the World Economic Forum on Africa, Minister of Natural resources Dr. Vincent Biruta explained how the extractive linear economy relies on ‘large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy, and is a model that is reaching its physical limits’. The Minister emphasised how the shift to a circular system is in line with other efforts to develop Rwanda’s economy, from energy to manufacturing. According to reports, the meeting also saw the launch of the Circular Economy Regional Alliance in Africa – Circulate will be keeping an eye out for more details on this initiative as they emerge.

Global Brands, bold ambitions

The circular economy featured heavily in the sustainability reports of two major brands this week. Nike’s publication, the release of which coincided with a new Global Partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, stated how ‘the future will be circular’, with CEO Mark Parker stating how the company are ‘exploring new business models that keep materials in play through reuse and regeneration’. The report places emphasis not only on design and materials selection, but also systems thinking:

We are dedicated to catalyzing and incentivizing change that will help unlock access to flows of capital and level the playing field on standards across the industry… It needs collaboration among industry, civil society, policymakers, workers and business to deliver the financial, science and technology resources and capabilities that will accelerate system-level change.

There was no shortage of circular economy commitment in Coke CCE’s CSR report, also released this week. The company, responsible for Coca Cola’s packaging, are aiming to increase the use of recycled and renewable materials, and recycle more packaging than it uses. The authors of the report also welcome the recent Circular Economy Package recommendations around material recovery and reprocessing. If recent reports have taught us anything, it’s that there’s clearly a long way to go in the plastic packaging industry. To help get there, Coke CCE have run a six-month partnership with Cranfield University to explore the circular economy, resource management practices and new technologies that could unlock material flows, and in 2015, 34% of the PET that purchased was of the recycled variety.

Nissan: mobility crucial to energy network

nissan-xstorage-futures-energy-home-recycled-electric-car-battery_dezeen_936_2A big week for Nissan, rolling out two new initiatives that point the way to a future of decentralised energy storage and optimised use. First up, the xStorage battery is a jazzy-looking battery pack designed for domestic use. Buy one, stick it on the wall of your garage and you could become more independent – and resilient – from the wider energy grid, storing energy when it’s cheap (or when the sun’s shining). It’s not the first example of this technology, as Tesla and Mercedes announced similar offerings in 2015, but here’s something that makes xStorage extra interesting: it’s made from a battery that had a former life in one of the company’s fully electric vehicles. It’s a nice example of redistributing a technical product: whilst the component might not be up to the task of powering a car, it could still be suitable for storing solar or grid energy in the home. The other announcement from Nissan is the trial of a system called ‘Vehicle to Grid’, or V2G. If you’re the driver of a Nissan Leaf or e-NV200 electric van, you’ll be able to plug in to a V2G unit and sell power back to the grid. Again, this could help create a more flexible energy system, with the batteries acting “as added capacity to the national grid, helping balance demand at peak times with power being sold back into the grid”, as the Telegraph reports.

Pull yourself together

Look around you. Most of the stuff we in our lives just wasn’t designed for a circular economy, which makes creating circular flows of resources pretty tricky. One common design feature that makes repair, upgrade and materials separation difficult is the use of non-reversible manufacturing techniques, such as heat-welding and adhesives. There are some amazing technologies out there that could help address this problem, but Japanese footwear designer Roderick Pieters prefers a more down-to-earth approach, as seen on Dezeen.


The Loper shoes, designed for fashion brand Proef and now available on Kickstarter, feature an adhesive-free design in which the upper is joined to the sole with a piece of good ol’ fashioned rope. This means that the shoes can be assembled by hand, and repaired by the owner, in the same way that you’d replace the tyre on a bicycle. What’s more, Pieters hopes that this could improve working conditions in footwear factories, as the widespread exposure to glue vapours could have health implications. Circulate isn’t a fashion blog so we can’t pass judgement on the aesthetics, but the Loper is nearing its crowdfunding goal so there are clearly some folks out there who can’t wait to be strutting around in shoes they’ve customised and assembled themselves. Even if they’re not for you, the project should serve as inspiration for novel ways to approach design for disassembly.

Disruptive Drones

Image: kvoloshin / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND
Image: kvoloshin / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Big number alert: PwC reckon that commercial application of drones could replace $127 billion of human labour and services in the very near future. We’ve been hearing for some time how automation of unmanned vehicles is poised to turn the current economy on its head, with some sectors – such as the freight industry – feeling the impact earlier than others. According to the new study, it’s infrastructure that will take the biggest benefit (or loss, depending on your standpoint). This is an important development in the context of the transition to a circular economy, and is worth exploring. Check out our recent Future of Mobility piece ‘Tech as the Driver’, in which Ian Banks considers how automation could be a positive aspect of a mature circular economy.

The circular economy landscape, according to the Beeb

Finally, the BBC offered a wide-ranging overview of the current momentum behind the circular economy, primarily from the perspective of business and government. Whilst the headline might place too much focus on recycling, the insights from Jaguar Land Rover, Interserve and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, further push the circular economy into mainstream economics dialogue.


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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]