In 2017, an estimated 16 billion single-use coffee cups were thrown away in the European Union - that equals 4.4 million cups per day. Whether it‘s coffee cups, clothes or any other consumer item, our consumption behavior always seems to follow a similar, linear pattern - we buy, we use and ultimately we throw away. By doing so, we make use of extensive amounts of materials and energy while permanently exceeding our natural limits. In a world of finite resources, this model is clearly doomed to failure in the long run.
Our way of consumption needs to change drastically in order to sustain in the future. In other words, our linear economic system of today needs to be transformed into a circular one. The concept of circular economy has received growing awareness over the last years. A circular economy describes an economic system that aims to minimize its input of new materials, waste production and pollution by reusing the same set of resources. Whether it‘s recycling, repairing, remanufacturing or simply sharing with others, the circular economy comes in various forms, always intending to minimize the usage of new materials.
The implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan as part of the European Green Deal, shows that the idea of a circular economy increasingly sparks the interest of the political sphere. However, until now little action has been taken to carry out the severe measures that would be needed to transform today’s economic system into a sustainable one.
Coming up with concrete solutions instead of engaging in purely theoretical debates – this has been the philosophy of Circularity, a German Network and Do-Tank aimed to spread awareness for the idea of a circular economy. "When founding Circularity we realized that the topic of circular business models was addressed in other European countries, however, the dialogue with the German economy somehow seemed to be missing," explains Marianne. She is one of the co-founders of Circularity, currently writing her PhD on the topic of Circular Economy. That’s how the idea of founding Circularity was born.
Since 2018, Circularity regularly organizes events to spread awareness on the topic. While the first two years were mostly dedicated to administering larger workshops with companies, such as Coca-Cola and Google, the audience addressed by the Circularity team rapidly became more heterogeneous. "Circularity needs a mix of actors. The processes are complicated and different mindsets enhance the debate and lead to more concrete ideas," says Tim, who works as a private sector consultant with an energy and infrastructure focus.
Today, Circularity organizes about one event per month with both students and representatives of the public and private sector. Among all audiences, coming up with concrete and doable solutions is always in the center of debate. Workshops are structured in an interactive way: Companies would present the measures they have already taken regarding the transformation to a circular business model and further explain the challenges they are currently struggling with on their path to a circular system. In the following, participants would exchange their ideas in smaller groups.
While the various advantages of a circular economy always stand out during the workshops, the complexity of the topic becomes clear at the same time. "One thing that I notice quite frequently is the confusion between the terms circular economy and the ecological footprint," explains Tim. Companies often propose to start using less resources when talking about a circular economy. By doing so, they might reduce their emissions, however, their business models still keep relying on linear processes. In order to implement a circular model one would need to redesign the whole business model. Ultimately, the term is often used in a misleading context.
Another issue strives from how our economies function today. Our current economy has optimized the linear model. Saying that we now want to start using a completely different approach can lead to inefficiencies. One example would be the recycling of plastic: Buying recycled plastic is often way more expensive than plastic that has been newly produced. That is because our recycling models are still at a comparatively low stage of development and there is plenty of room for improvement. Companies are aware of the current expenses that come along with adopting sustainable business models.
The bottom line is that the benefits of producing green products need to outweigh the disadvantages in order for companies to seriously start rethinking their current way of producing. On the bright side, the incentives for companies to produce more environmentally friendly, at least within the European Union, are growing. One example being the carbon border tax starting in 2023 that would reflect the amount of carbon emissions attributed to goods imported into the European Union from countries with lower environmental standards. "In the long run, the automotive and aviation industry, for example, won’t be able to use combustion engines as any company would die out that doesn’t manage to make the transformation on time," says Marianne.
If we take a look at the rest of the world, one realizes that the idea of a circular economy can by no means be considered a European or western project. "I am very optimistic that we are approaching a time of global rethinking," admits Tim. If we look at China, for example, one will notice that the Chinese government already puts lots of efforts into preventing the levels of air pollution in China’s cities from rising even more. Another approach that can be observed is the rise of collaborative communities and low tech investments in Africa.
"In my opinion, a country’s efforts towards becoming more environmentally friendly is not necessarily correlated with its development status."
In order to transform the way of production, change not only needs to happen on the supply but also on the demand side. One aspect refers to our understanding of ownership, which according to Marianne, needs to be rethought. Sharing reusable products with others and repairing instead of replacing need to become the new societal norm. One interesting approach that might work now would be the creation of a competitive advantage through a circular economy. "If I lend my washing machine, for example, then I would receive an added value using the exact same materials," says Tim.
The two Circularity founders agree that it ultimately comes down to finding the right balance. When we talk about becoming more sustainable, we automatically discuss the extremes: We need to recycle 100% of our products and we need to entirely give up consumerism. But why don’t we ever discuss what’s in between? In order to create sustainable futures, we equally need to consume less and at the same time disconnect the adding of new value from the consumption of new materials. The good thing about a circular economy is that it doesn’t question the general growth paradigms of our economy. In theory, we could produce just the same quantities in a circular economy as we do today, they would just grow circularly.
We won’t be successful if we try to completely transform the consumer society that we currently live in within a short period of time. Therefore, we need to propose solutions that are pragmatic and that improve the status quo to slowly convince societies to rethink their consumerism and plant the seeds for a sustainable and circular future.