What can we do to promote the circular economy?

This report was originally drafted to stimulate discussion with Transition Cambridge Energy Group in May 2016. I have updated it to reflect points by other members of the group.

1. What is a circular economy and why is it a good thing?

A circular economy is one in which stuff that is broken or obsolete is not thrown out. Instead it is fixed or reused to make new stuff. In a circular economy there is:

  • less waste, litter and other pollution from waste
  • less carbon emissions, and other pollutants that are generated in extracting and making things from scratch
  • valuable materials such as scarce metals are conserved

There are many examplies of circular economic thinking in our society already
One would have thought that our economy would naturally head in this direction because it is 'obviously efficient'. It does not for several reasons: one is that we are not very good at pricing pollution and another is that in our society labour is expensive and reprocessing is usually labour intensive. None the less, there are already many examples of circular economic thinking in our society and we can do lots more.

Circles involve varying degrees of reprocessing - smaller circules are preferable
The circular economy can have different size circles as shown in the chart. Increasing levels of processing are required for larger loops. For example clothes can be resold second hand, fixed or altered, chopped into pieces for patchwork, or used as rags or furniture stuffing. Paper can be recycled by being broken down into fibres for new paper or completely disintegrated by composting - and the compost used to grow new trees and new paper. Ideally we only resort to the larger routes when there is no more value to be gained from the smaller loops.

diagram of larger and larger recycling loops

Cambridge Carbon Footprint is currently running a circular economy challenge circular economy challenge but most of their suggestions seem to me more like austerity living: repairing stuff, sharing it, only buying new stuff when we need it. This is good for economising but not for running the economy, so I have written this post to explore the topic further and make more suggestions.

The circular economy must support livelihoods.
To be sustainable, the circular economy must contribute to our conventional economy. It needs to involve money and support livelihoods. This is anathema to some people, but when transactions occur outside the economy they do not build up pension funds or contribute taxes to run hospitals, schools and other services we expect and rely on.

The potential for a growing economy without using more stuff
This year, 35 countries reported economic growth without increasing carbon emissions. (see Carbon Brief ). Similarly, a circular economy has the potential to give us economic growth without using more stuff. In theory we should be able to recycle the same material many times, adding value each time. In practice 100% recycling each time is virtually impossible as there are always either losses or some need for new material to improve quality. However, we can do a great deal better than we do now and mimimise the need for new material that is not renewable.

Actually growing the economy means devising a way to get more and more value from the same amount of stuff. This is not too hard at the moment as many products are 'over engineered' with more material than needed. For example the standard 'I' shaped beam used in buildings can be replaced with designs that use 30% less material and still meet the required building codes (see Sustainable Materials without the Hot Air ).

2. The first loop - sharing and reselling

Sharing stuff gets more value from rarely used stuff even if it does not contribute to the economy.
Cambridge Carbon Footprint recommends sharing stuff in order not to buy stuff that will be used rarely. For example you might share a car, or share a lawnmower and power tools.

When you share stuff it is invisible to the economy at the time but ultimately the car/lawnmower/tool will be used more and wear out quicker, so it will need replacing. Whether this contributes more to the economy than not sharing depends on how much use you would have got from it anywway.

Sharing stuff is friendly and builds community. Sharing stuff is a good way to get the most value out of it before it is obsolete.

Buying and selling used stuff contributes to the economy.
If you have clothes you have grown out of, or tools that you are never likely to use again, it does not make sense to keep them cluttering up your cupboard or wardrobe. You can give them away to a friend and that is friendly and kind. However, it will support more livelihoods (your own or someone elses) if you sell it on eBay or give it to a charity shop.

When buying stuff, consider buying second hand.
When you have stuff you do not need, consider selling it or giving it to a charity shop.

3. The second loop - repair

Repairing stuff supports livelihoods if you use a professional service
If my friends lawn mower breaks down and I fix it for them that is a nice thing to do. It has added value to the lawn mower and delays the need for a new one but it is a gift and invisible to the economy. On the other hand if I start a business fixing lawn mowers and charge people for my services then I can make a living from it and contribute to the economy.

Many high value goods with high embodied energy can be repaired professionally
You may be surprised at the range of items that can be repaired professionally: shoes, clothes, computers and phones (especially broken screens), bicycles, washing machines. These are all fairly high value goods that are worth repair because making them from scratch involves a lot of energy and emissions. If you cannot find a local repair service it is worth asking the shop you got it from. For example Rohan in Cambridge liaises with a local repair service that is very good value and very useful for broken zips or holes in pockets (as my beloved will avow).

If your stuff needs mending, consider taking it to a professional repair service.

Repairing your broken stuff can be preferable to getting a new one that is different
Repairing stuff can be a way to save money or a way to retain value. If you have enjoyed using something and it breaks you may not want a new, different thing that might not work quite as well. You might prefer to have your broken one fixed.

4. The other loops - recycling and disintegration

Recycling requires more energy than repair
It is more efficient to repair stuff where possible but everything wears out or becomes obsolete eventually. The next larger loop is recycling and it always requires energy. For starters, you have to collect up the waste and to maximise value you have to keep different materials separate. For example, mixed paper waste is worth only half as much as sorted office waste. (http://www.letsrecycle.com/prices/waste-paper/uk-domestic-mill-prices/2016-domestic-mill-prices/ ). Keeping waste streams separate requires more transport energy and human effort too.

Taking things apart by machine can be difficult so human intervention is required
Then you need to take things apart and that also requires energy and/or human effort. For example, mills handling recycled paper have special processes for removing contaminants such as staples and cellophane windows. However even these machines cannot handle large amount of plastic tape reliably. It saves downtime at the mill if you remove the tape first but this requires time and energy from you. http://www.recycleforwestsussex.org/home-recycling/your-kerbside-collection/paper-and-cardboard/

When putting stuff out for recycling, try to make it easy for the machinery by separating caps from bottles and removing excess tape from cardboard.

Recycling WEEE can be dangerous but we can use robots instead of people
There are many horror stories about people in developing countries being exposed to toxic fumes and other dangers while disassembling waste stuff, especially electrical stuff. Sometimes it even happens in this country, though this is illegal (see WEEE recycler fined over mercury exposure ). Maybe it would be better if we could program robots to do the dirty stuff Apple seems to think so. They have developed a robot called LIAM to take iPhones apart for recycling. (Apple unveils 29-armed robot designed to disassemble old iPhones ).

Is Apple Renew just a ploy to get second hand stuff off the market?
To encourage us to hand in our old phones and other stuff Apple will give us a gift card in exchange. (See Apple Renew ). The cynics among you probably consider this is just a ploy to take second hand stuff off the market. There are no easy answers to this.

When you want to replace your obsolete electronic equipment you have a choice: use the manufacturers take back scheme to ensure it is recycled safely or give the equipment to a charity that will reuse it

Car and electronics manufacturers have a duty to recycle stuff
You will often hear manufacturers crow about their recycling policies when they are merely conforming to legal requirements. Apple, like other electronic manufacturers, is required to process a proportion of waste electricity stuff under the WEEE regulations and some say LIAM is just a gimmick (Almost Nothing About the Apple Harvests Gold From iPhones Story Is True ). Other regulations apply to car manufacturers in the EU they are required to recycle at least 85% of the material in end of life vehicles.

Different ways to accomplish recycling brute force or careful dismantling
Of course there are different ways to achieve this and how it is done varies between countries. In the UK the main method is shredding, which means using heavy machinery to break the car up into small pieces and then separating them as far as possible by material type. If you like monster machines you will love the shredders. There is one near Newport in Wales powered by a 40-ton electric motor than can demolish 450 cars an hour. (The World's Biggest Auto Shredder Eats 450 Cars an Hour ).

In Poland there are fewer cars to recycle (only 340,000/year compared to 1,220,000 in the UK) but they mainly do it by a more labour intensive disassembly process (End-of-life vehicle statistics )

4.1. Designing stuff to make recycling easier

Metal alloys have to be diluted with virgin stuff to adjust the mix.
More complex stuff is hard to recycle and the worst is composite materials and alloys. For example steel is often mixed with nickel, copper or other metals to get different properties. Making a high specification alloy from a bucket of mixed recycling material is just about impossible but purifying the metals is also extremely difficult. It is much easier to add new components than to remove them so recycled metals are usually diluted with some virgin metal so there is too little alloy rather than too much. That way the fine adjustments can be done by addition.

Disposable coffee cups can only be recycled at specialist centres
Disposable coffee cups are a classic example of composite structure that is difficult to handle. These are mostly cardboard but with a thin plastic liner. Separating the plastic from the cardboard allows at least the latter to be recycled or composted. There is one company in the UK that does this, Simply Cups , and they currently have two dedicated recycling plants.

There is a balance between high in-use performance and ease of recycling
What this means is that when designing stuff there is a balance between making it highly efficient (for example light weight cars made of fancy composites and alloys) and easy to recycle. Sometimes the carbon savings from in-use performance can be outweighed by the difficulty in reclaiming the materials afterwards. (Interaction between New Car Design and Recycling Impact on Life Cycle Assessment )

It is helpful to design stuff to make the different materials separable.
To make something 100% recyclable it helps to design it that way from the start. For example, Desso is a carpet company that has designed a special sort of carpet tile where the backing can be separated from the yarn. This makes it possible to recycle both streams more easily. Desso - Take Back Programme

If you are a designer consider ease of recycling as part of your design

5. How does nature do it?

Sometimes we can learn from nature how to do things well. Nature is supposed to be very good at recycling so how does it do it?

Nature does not do recycling it disintegrates and reconstructs
In nature, animals and plants are evolved for reproduction, not for having the bits reused. There are a few examples of reuse in nature like hermit crabs that use discarded shells and birds that use twigs and moss to make nests. I would say that nature is not very good at what we normally think of as recycling - it is more a matter of complete disintegration and remanufacturing. When we eat meat we do not reuse the muscle fibres, we break the material down to the level of amino acids (or smaller) that we can use for rebuilding our bodies.

There are specialist organisms for disintegrating difficult stuff like bones and wool
None the less, nature is very resourceful when it comes to disintegration. Some parts of animals and plants are harder to process than others but, given enough time, nature can work out a way to make use of practically anything. These organisms are often specialists like termites for wood, vultures and hyenas eating bones and moths that eat fur and wool. We think of plastic as being completely inert well weve been dumping it into the environment for a few decades now and that has been enough time for bacteria to evolve to decompose it. (see Newly discovered bacteria can eat plastic bottles )

Disintegration is quicker with heat
Nature can decompose practically anything but it takes time and it works faster in the warm tropics than in cooler countries. This is because decomposing stuff into very small pieces takes energy. We see this in our compost heaps. Hot composting takes only a few weeks whereas conventional cold composting takes months (Hot Compost - composting in 18 days )

Recycling stuff that is not designed for it is hard - we can do better.
From this we learn that recycling products that arent designed for it is hard. Well we knew that anyway. It is more efficient to design stuff with replaceable components and reusable parts, so we can avoid the hassle of disintegration as much as possible.

However, there is stuff that nature handles reasonably fast and cheaply: green waste. This is a very large part of our waste. One third of the waste collected by local authorities is garden waste or food; plastic is only 10%. (Digest of waste and resource statistics 2015 )

6. Who pays and who benefits from recycling?

Our organic waste goes to Amey in Waterbeack to make low value soil improver. You can take it away for free.
In Cambridge, as is many other areas, we are encouraged to put our organic waste (including food waste) into bins for recycling. It all goes to Amey at Waterbeach where it is turned into soil improver. They cannot call the product compost because it is, at least potentially, contaminated with plastic and other non-compostable stuff. People put a surprisng amount of this stuff into their green bin either accidentially or through carelessness or ignorance. For example, people may put in plastic labelled biodegradable, even though it needs light or heat to decompose and does not get this in the compost heap. Amey gets most contamination out by sieving but they cannot guarantee there is absolutely none left. The resulting product is therefore low in value and they will sell it to you for the cost of delivery. If you collect it yourself you can take as much as you like for free.

Where there is value from our household recycling, it reduces our council tax bills.
There is value in our recycling waste (organics and dry recyclables) but we do not see this value, at least not directly. We give our waste to the council and they deal with it as best they can. When they can get value from it we get the benefit in reduced council tax bills. Aluminium cans are the most valuable part of our recycling but paper and some plastics are also quite good.

When people are careless it reduces the value.
However, it only takes a few people being careless with the recycling to dramatically reduce the value that can be obtained. A small amount of food waste contaminates a load of paper. If there wasnt so much plastic and glass in the green bins it could make proper compost. As it is the best we can do is make soil improver. I know a few people who do not think this is good enough for their allotment, though most people are happy with it.

Proper compost is valuable and can replace high-energy inorganic fertiliser.
This is an enormous shame, because not only could we get more value from better quality compost, it can displace use of conventional inorganic fertiliser. Making conventional fertiliser uses lots of energy as well as material from mining such as phosphate. The EU recently made new regulations to make compost more valuable to promote production. The new regulations create a quality standard associated with a CE mark. With that mark, compost can be freely traded across the union. (Circular economy: New Regulation to boost the use of organic and waste-based fertilisers )

For more on household recycling and the value in different kinds of waste see What is your recycled waste worth .

7. Incentive schemes for recycling

Some councils offer incentives but we have little evidence if they actually work.
When the recycled stuff is valuable, it seems that many people are resentful that they are being asked to make an effort for the benefit of the council, even though it does come back to us in the end. Either that or they do not see much point in making an effort since individuals do not make much difference. We have to all co-operate. Some councils offer more personal incentive schemes, such as rewards for local community projects when recycling rates increase. The evidence as to how well this works is sketchy. (Are recycling incentive schemes working )

Returnable bottle deposits were abandoned mainly because of low profit margins
When I was a kid drinks bottles had a deposit on them. When you returned the bottles you got a few pence. However businesses stopped doing this because the profit margins on new bottles were better than the margins on washing and reusing them. Also, most shoppers do not want the hassle of the returns. They would rather have a lower price in the first place.

A glass bottle over 0.5 L carries a 30p deposit in Denmark.
However, there are places where bottle deposit schemes are effective. For example in Denmark, most glass, plastic and aluminium containers have a deposit; a glass bottle over 0.5 L has a deposit of 3 DKK (about 30p). Some people throw the bottles away anyway but other people, often the homeless or children, collect them up to earn money. We could do this here. It just requires a bit of regulation. (Genius garbage can makes it easier for homeless people to collect bottles ).

The Beer Store in Canada reuses bottles 12-15 times, 97.7% redemption rate.
In Ontario, Canada, all locally produced alcoholic beverages must have a deposit on the packaging. They are recycled through The Beer Store, which has a 100% take back packaging policy so you can recycle all the packaging not just the bottles. Much of The Beer Store packaging is reusable. Beer containers are reused 12-15 times and they claim 97.7% redemption rate. Presumably this only applies to their own bottles and when they handle bottles from other producers they use conventional recycling. Bottle Bill Resource Guide

In Berlin, you post your bottles in a reverse vending machine outside a supermarket and claim the deposit off your shopping bill.
The handling costs for handing deposits can be reduced by using reverse vending machines. You post your bottles and get a receipt that can be used to claim the deposit. Quite often these are outside a supermarket and you can claim the bottle deposit off your shopping bill. (The experience with a Berlin Bottle Recycling machine )

Campaign for returnable bottles with deposits, like in Denmark, Germany and Canada

8. Minimising use of non-renewable materials

Another way thinking about the circular economy is to consider what sort of materials we use a lot of and how we can use less. In terms of sheer bulk the big culprits are mostly to do with construction:

Material How to minimise use
Fossil fuels Invest in energy efficiency and generate renewables
Sand and gravel Supplement with waste glass, hardcore from building materials, design to use less (e.g. make foundations with columns supported by pads rather than rafts). However sand and gravel are widely available and do not need much energy.
Limestone and gypsum to make cement Making cement is high energy and generates carbon emissions. Use timber and modern structured insulated panels (SIPs) for building instead of masonry. Use stone or rammed earth walls for thermal mass instead of masonry.
Steel and aluminium These are high energy too. Design to use as little as possible. Use other materials such as engineered wood instead.

The next time you build a house, do not use bricks and concrete.

Modern building materials are lighter and use less energy than masonry. (I thoroughly recommend this TED talk on the subject . See also my earlier post More houses less bricks and mortar .

9. Renting rather than buying

When we buy things it is our responsibility to dispose of them properly
In our economy transactions are generally to do with buying things, not using them. Once you have bought your washing machine, computer, car or new boiler you use it as much as you like (until it breaks or becomes obsolete). This means the manufacturers are primarily concerned with making and selling stuff, not about what to do with them when they are finished with. Sometimes there are regulations about disposal like WEEE and the end-of-life regulations for cars. However, it is up to us as owner to take the items to an appropriate agent for disposal. This is a hassle for us and we get no direct benefit from it, unless there is a special take back scheme.

Most people will not pay much extra for longer lasting stuff.
It also means the manufacturers maximise their profits by making new stuff that does not necessarily last very long, so that we have to keep buying more. If we knew in advance that even though Fridge B costs twice as much as Fridge A it is worth it because it lasts 2.5 times as long - well we might buy it because of that but only if we have enough cash at the time going spare. Apart from anything else, how do you know that it will last that long?

When you rent you get the product plus maintenance and insurance.

The rental economy is an alternative approach. Instead of buying stuff you rent it from a supply company, for example Zip Car is a car club. Having joined you can rent a car when you like. If the car goes wrong that is Zip Car's problem and they also have to dispose of it responsibly at the end of its life. Obviously it is in Zip Car's interest to choose a car that is reliable and, when it does go wrong, easily fixed, reconditioned or recycled. You do not have to spend time researching into reliability vs. cost because they do it for you.

Renting can cost more in the long run than buying but it can also save you money. When you rent you get not just the product but also a maintenance contract and replacement insurance.

You can rent TVs, washing machines, central heating boilers, or lease cars
Renting furniture and equipment is more common in the commercial world than in domestic appliances but there are firms that do it. You can hire TVs and washing machines (Dial a TV ) and also central heating boilers (The modern way to buy a boiler: hire it ). If you lease a car, the lease may or may not come with servicing as part of the hire package.

Renting is sensible for high value items
When TVs first came out they were expensive and often went wrong. Renting was the norm because you did not have a high up-front cost and you did not have to pay for the engineer to fix it when it wnet on the blink. As TVs became cheaper and more reliable more and more people switched to owning them instead. However, for more expensive items renting is still a sensible alternative.

The next time you need to replace an appliance, consider renting instead.

10. Summary and Conclusions

If the circular economy is to be mainstream it has to be a proper economy, involving financial transactions that support livelihoods and get taxed. The most efficient loops are the tight ones that do not involve much processing. To use these we have to develop markets in second hand goods and professional repair services, not expect new stuff all the time.

Recycling is currently driven mainly by regulation, for example for WEEE and car recycling. Part of the reason for this is that manufacturers avoid paying the true costs associated with use of primary materials so it is very profitable to keep making and selling new stuff.

Recycling products that are not designed for it is expensive and can be unpleasant. However, we can do better than this! There is sometimes a trade off between high performance and design for recycling and overall carbon emissions can be lower when recycling is given more priority.

The circular economy works better when we pay for using things rather than owning them. Otherwise we have to accept that ownership comes with responsibility. You need to dispose of your stuff in a way that keeps it in the economy.

Rather than owning things, perhaps we should think of ourselves temporary custodians. When we do not want something any more we should pass it on to another custodian who can make it useful again.

11. Links for more information