My brief encounter with the concept of circular economy was in 2015, when I read an article about how college students were moving into nursing homes. This may seem pretty farfetched from anything related to the circular economy, but hear me out.
Beer pong and walkers: An unexpected duo
This unexpected idea was born when long-term care facilities in the Netherlands stopped receiving funding from the government for the provision of care to citizens over the age of 80 who were not in dire need. This resulted in a large group of aging adults not being able to shoulder the costs. On the other hand, students in the Netherlands spend a hefty average of $410 monthly on rent, up from $348 in 2012. Student housing is often cramped and is increasingly difficult to come by. Amsterdam, for instance, was short of almost 9,000 student rooms the year before the idea was implemented.
Gea Sijpkes, Director and CEO at Humanitas, hence came up with an innovative idea to allow students to stay in vacant rooms free of charge in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month. The volunteer agreement includes students spending time teaching the residents new skills like email, social media, Skyping, and even graffiti art.
A mutual benefit
“If they could get a room in Humanitas, they wouldn’t have to borrow so much money for their study. At the same time, I have some young people in the house, which makes Humanitas the warmest and nicest home in which everybody who needs care would want to live.”
For the residents, the students serve as a bridge to the outside world. When students come home from a class, a concert, or a party, they share those experiences with their elderly neighbours. Research has linked loneliness to mental decline and increased mortality, and regular social interaction with friends and family has been found to improve health in older adults.
The idea fathomed out sustainable solutions for two lofty problems in society without depending on funding and long-drawn-out policies.
This is my idea of a circular economy. Leaning on your community, valuing reciprocity, and searching for relationships among unexpected things.
What is the circular economy?
In today’s context, a circular economy tends to only refer to the creation of production and possibly services.
The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles:
1. Eliminate waste and pollution
DyeCoo’s waterless dyeing system eliminates the release of toxic wastewater.
Our economy works in a take-make-waste system. We take raw materials from Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste. Most of the waste ends up in landfills or incinerators. A highly unsustainable process because resources on our planet are finite.
2. Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
Ecovative packaging can be returned to the earth after use as part of the biological cycle.
This means keeping materials in use, either as a product or when they can no longer be used, as components or raw materials. This way, nothing becomes a waste and the intrinsic value of products and materials are retained.
There are two fundamental cycles in the ways products and materials can be kept in circulation. The first is the technical cycle — Products are reused, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled. In the biological cycle, biodegradable materials are returned to the earth through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion.
3. Regenerate nature
Natura has helped conserve 2 million hectares of rainforest.
Lastly, my favourite principle. By shifting our economy from linear to circular, we shift the focus from extraction to regeneration. Instead of continuously degrading nature, we build natural capital.
Transitioning to a regenerative model means mimicking our waste-free natural systems.
Although these three principles are coherent, they are missing one big point. That is, to support a just transition, a circular economy cannot be used as a tool to maintain our world’s unsustainable growth and habits.
Adding the donut to the circular economy
To elaborate on the last paragraph above, the growth I’m talking about here is the capital’s growth imperative with no horizon — no future point at which economists and politicians say we will have enough money or enough stuff. The unquestioned assumption is that growth can and should carry on forever, for its own sake. A circular economy will not be tainted by such a system. Instead, a circular economy should support the balance of human socio-economic and ecological health, and NOT our GDP.
The Donut vision
The donut vision gives an overview of where our socio-economic systems should be placed, in the ‘green’ safe zone. The circular economy aims to be the tool to support this vision and puts this into action.
Systems like these take time to build, and we all know they are never silver bullets. Since both the circular economy and the donut are new frameworks, they will still be evolving.
Working towards a circular economy with its principles of regeneration offers practical action and tools that feed into the transition to the macroeconomic vision of the donut.
To achieve its core principles, a circular economy could act as an enabler that regenerates (with closed loops) and redistributes (with an open-source focus). — Kruti Munot
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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