How Circular Economy Can Support The Transition To A Sustainable World

by Ekta Chauhan - Dec 27, 2017 12:35 PM +05:30 IST
How Circular Economy Can Support The Transition To A Sustainable WorldCircular economy (Photo: Friends of Europe/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
  • Circular economy is not just about reuse, but also innovation, value retention, new uses of existing products, recycling, adaptability and flexibility.

    Here’s why the concept is fast catching up in countries like China, Japan, and Germany.

The world today is facing a sustainability crisis. While cities and nations have developed rapidly in the past century, the long-term impact of this unplanned and resource-intensive growth are now becoming evident. From global climatic change to food shortage, we are seeing a series of crises, which will only multiply in the coming decades if not dealt with in an intelligent and innovative way.

The theme of a circular economy, however, is now emerging and rapidly gaining attention as a means to support the transition to a more sustainable and resilient world.

Understanding Circular Economy

According to Ellen MacArthur, the creator of the term, a circular economy is essentially based on five broad principles:

1. Design out of waste

2. Build resilience through diversity

3. Rely on energy from renewable resources

4. Think in systems

5. Waste is food

Thus, while there is not a set definition, a circular economy seeks to “rebuild capital, whether this is financial, and manufactures, human, social or natural. This ensures enhanced flow of goods and services. The systems diagram (Figure 1) illustrates the continuous flow of technical and biological materials through ‘value circles’.”

Systems diagram circular energy (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
Systems diagram circular energy (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

The concept of circular economy is sometimes wrongly seen as a high-quality reuse of resources. However, the concept is about closing of cycles, the making of products from reusable resources and using them for as long as possible through maintenance, repair and by sharing the utilisation of such products. Thus, a circular economy is not only about reuse but also innovation, value retention, new uses of existing products, recycling, adaptability and flexibility.

Experiences of nations

Nations are now attempting to translate the concept of circular economy into development legislation and through application of technology and practices. China, for example, has developed an extensive legislative and regulatory framework to promote the concept. The Circular Economy Initiative Development Strategy (2002) focused on sustainable production and consumption. The focus of circular policy in china has shifted from waste recycling to broader efficiency-oriented control at every stage of production, distribution and consumption. The strategy encompasses efficiency and conservation, land management and soil protection and integrated water resource management as key issues.

Thus, the concept of circular economy is being used by China as a development strategy to switch to a more sustainable economic structure. The impact of the strategy is already visible. A sustainable energy revolution is now underway in the country and is reflecting in the plummeting price of solar energy in the country. The large-scale production of solar energy seems to have lowered the price of panels, making the energy cheaper than traditional coal and gas.

Japan too has been focusing on waste management and resource depletion since the turn of the century. The country is trying to create a society that is less dependent on natural resources. A series of laws have been passed to work towards this goal. For example, Law for the Promotion of Efficient Utilisation of Resources passed in the year 2000, is aimed at minimising waste by producers as well as consumers. This law was the first in the world to adopt a lifespan approach and thus covered every stage of manufacturing.

Germany was actually the first country to enact an explicit circular economy law which focuses on waste management. The Circular Economy and Waste Management Law has been in effect since the 1990s. The law requires producers and sellers to meet set criteria:

1. Minimisation of the amount of waste arising from production and use

2. Possibility of maximum high-quality waste recovery

3. Feasibility of environment-friendly disposal of unusable waste

Opportunities and challenges

The concept of circular economy is thus much more than just recycling and reuse. It begins with the design and production process of new products and planning them in a way that waste is either completely avoided or minimised. This requires the policy makers and designers to think in systems and recognise relationships, in companies and production processes as well as in the development of buildings, neighbourhoods and cities. Existing and well-developed urban areas lend themselves easily to the concept as they already have a network of citizens, retailers and service providers. But at the same time, since there is already an existing system in the cities, any change cannot be brought at once and has to be marginal.

One can say that the concept of circular economy has always been functioning in cities at some level. Indian cities especially have seen this concept at work and have retained its value. Thus, some building may have been a palace once but was later probably used as an office. Innovative reuse and renovation is what has kept ancient cities like Varanasi and Delhi alive till date.

We perhaps need to take inspiration from our past and think creatively to put modern-day innovations to smart use.

Ekta is a staff writer at Swarajya.

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