How Curves Will, Literally, Save the World
aking “thick thighs save lives” to a whole other level.
I’m going to take a shot and assume that the first thing you think when you think donuts is not “eco-friendly”. Amirite? (I know I am.)
But what if I told you that I could actually make those mouth-watering sweet treats eco-friendly? Imagine a box of six donuts. Now, imagine that after you devour them, their cardboard box can be disassembled and recycled to make notebooks. Let’s go further back too; imagine if the frier used to golden them was made of metal that once belonged to a car; imagine if the bike your delivery-man took was powered completely by solar energy.
Well, there’s a chance we can make this a reality. Introducing: the donut economy! More commonly called the circular economy, but where’s the fun in that?
To understand the concept of a circular economy better, you need to understand
what our current economy looks like: a line. Our linear model is simple: take the resources, make the product, dispose of waste and eventually dispose of the product too (as shown by the complex diagram alongside)––estimates show that 99% of purchases are discarded within six months of the date of purchase, without their value even being recovered (Roth). Clearly, this system is not working; we generate unimaginable amounts of waste, while actually laying waste to natural resources.
An alternative to this, a circular economy, was proposed by Robert Ayres in 1990. To him, a circular economy resembles nature in that it supports a complete internal system with little-to-no loss––think: carbon or nitrogen cycles. This definition has been tweaked to form the modern concept of a circular economy: “an economic system that aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times” (Meo). It involves extending the full life-cycle of a product; from extraction to waste-cycling, the goal is decreasing production and consumption. Who knew that not being straight could help save the world?
This sounds perfect in theory, but how do we go about it? Well, how do you turn a line into a circle? You close the loop! Here’s a visual summary:
There are many loops to do this, each with varying efficiencies:
Reuse: The innermost loop, one where design is the star-in-the-spotlight. To be able to reuse things, they need to be multi-functional and multi-purposeful, entailing a shift from the one-product-one-use/single-use mentality. (How much easier is 3-in-1 body wash, shampoo and conditioner?)
Repair: Self-explanatory, and heavily linked to the first loop. For things to be reused, they need fixing; or because we’d be using things for so long, they would eventually need repair. “Repair” isn’t just garages or Genius Bars, it would involve maintenance or even revamping. Bored of your phone’s color? Change it completely, without spending tons!
Recycle, sometimes called “the loop of last resort”: This would be actual recycling, not this wish-cycling we currently do. This seems great, because we can change the world without changing how much we buy! Basically, you can still buy that bottle because it’s up to the manufacturer to make sure that it’s made of recycled products and can be easily recycled. Right? Wrong! While recycling is less energy-intensive than virgin production, it does use considerable amounts of energy (Velenturf). So eco-design is essential to this; we would have to make long-lasting products, but this also means that we! need! to! stop! buying! so! much! stuff!
This sounds very sci-fi, but it’s not. The European Union has proposed an action plan for a circular economy: Circular Economy Action Plan––creative, no? Particularly, this would involve a small change: shifting to clean energy––the most un-debated topic! Switching to renewable sources of energy reduces the need for extraction, so there are less resources involved in totality, thereby leaving less to recover and less to waste.
Now, this theory is called the circular economy, and we’ve only been focusing on the first part, so let’s talk economics. A donut economy keeps products circulating for longer, which opens up avenues for service industries––re-pairing, re-modelling, re-anythinging, because anything involving the three loops could generate an entire industry of its own. This would create more and more loops, meaning exponentially-increased potential for job creation!
A Cambridge–Econometrics–Trionics–ICF study discovered that switching from extraction to repair in the EU would add 700,00 jobs (Moss). Also, it’s nearly impossible for anything to be completely and entirely sustainable; this, along with emphasis on eco-design, leaves room for innovation, creativity, research, and all the other things entrepreneurs claim to focus on. This potential leaves more-than-enough room for growth, so the economy doesn’t stall either.
But the real beneficiary of this change would be our good friend, the environment. Remanufacturing uses 85% less energy than manufacturing, and scaled globally, this would reduce more than 800,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year (Moss). The EU predicts that by 2050, if implemented, this system would lead to a 56% drop in greenhouse gas emissions (“What Are”). Another prediction shows that shifting food systems to circular could lead to an 80% reduction in the use of artificial fertiliser––the health and ecological benefits of which are rampantly debated (“What Are”).
I know what you’re thinking? Not “I want donuts”, but that there are some obvious problems with this theoretical model. I agree, it has issues––but what doesn’t? There is ongoing research regarding how we can make this fantasy a reality because I, for one, really do like this planet. Let’s redefine “If you like it then you should’ve put a ring on it!” and actually put a ring on it––or in it, or make it a ring? Pfft, you get what I mean.
I’m going to go get donuts now––unfortunately, not eco-friendly ones. Happy munching!
Word count: 949
To save you the effort, here’re some resources for you to learn more about circular economies:
For a more general––and very well-designed––map into circular economies, Dutch company Het Groene Brein has put together a knowledge map about it; from explanations to current efforts, it has everything and you can check it out here!
The Guardian’s ‘How to bust the biggest myths about the circular economy’ addresses six different myths about circular economies, and blows them up into little bits––not literally, of course (that would be terribly wasteful). A fast and fun read, check it out here.
National Geographic’s ‘Is A World Without Trash Possible?’details a wonderful anecdote, presents an analysis of current production patterns and a myriad of possible additions and solutions. It’s a bit long, but a hooking read; read it here.
The Story of Stuff is an incredible project which, you guessed it, tracks the story of our stuff––the life-cycles of production our stuff follows to get to us. They have short and snappy Youtube videos, feature-length films and interactive quizzes.
Emerald Publishing’s ‘Circular Economy and Sustainable Business Performance Management in the era of Digitalization’ is a formal read, specifically about adapting corporate strategies to a circular economy. If this tickles your fancy, go through it here.
All the references I used were interesting enough for me to get through, so I’m sure they’d work for you too; they’re more general reads, but the list is right below this.
Happy reading (and munching)!
Lyon, Elizabeth. “Circular Economy Toolkit for Small Businesses.” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 24 Apr. 2020, www.uschamberfoundation.org/blog/post/circular-economy-toolkit-small-businesses.
Meo, Beatrice. “How Can the Circular Economy Support Sustainable Development?” Plan A Academy, 1 July 2020, plana.earth/academy/how-can-the-circular-economy-support-sustainable-development/.
Moss, Kevin. “Here's What Could Go Wrong with the Circular Economy-and How to Keep It on Track.” World Resources Institute, 30 Jan. 2020, www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/here-s-what-could-go-wrong-circular-economy-and-how-keep-it-track.
Roth, J. D. “The Story of Stuff.” Get Rich Slowly, Computer Resources Northwest LLP, 1 Aug. 2019, www.getrichslowly.org/the-story-of-stuff/.
Stevens, Sydney-Johanna. “Closing the Loop on the Circular Economy.” Sense & Sustainability, DISQUS, 7 Mar. 2019, www.senseandsustainability.net/2019/03/07/closing-the-loop-on-the-circular-economy/.
Velenturf, Anne, and Phil Purnell. “What a Sustainable Circular Economy Would Look Like.” The Conversation, The Conversation Media Group Ltd., 7 May 2020, theconversation.com/what-a-sustainable-circular-economy-would-look-like-133808.
“What Are the Environmental Benefits of the Circular Economy?” Kenniskaarten, Het Groene Brein, kenniskaarten.hetgroenebrein.nl/en/knowledge-map-circular-economy/ce-environmental-benefits/.
“What Is the Circular Economy?” Zero Waste Scotland, OGL, 9 Apr. 2020, www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/circular-economy/about.