Pandemic & circular economy

The costs associated with environmental degradation and resource depletion can derail the most turbo-charged linear economies.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Sat 6 Mar 2021, 10:19 PM

When a kitchen appliance breaks down, my mother’s first instinct is to get it repaired. I often tease her that it could cost her more to repair her vintage appliance than to buy a new one. But she grew up in post-independent inflationary India which, like most developing countries, spent less and saved more, bought less and reused more. Getting things repaired is etched in her psyche.

But those of us who started working in liberalised India quickly learnt to acquire things and forgot our parents’ habit of repair.

Consumption became a trope for prosperity. The mess created in the process is visible in the country. More than 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste chokes Indian rivers, ponds and drains. No matter how fast a country grows, its linear approach to economic growth will eventually drag it down. The costs associated with environmental degradation and resource depletion can derail the most turbo-charged linear economies.

In a linear economy, raw materials are used to manufacture products that are ultimately thrown away after use. The take-make-waste industries have ignored waste and assumed that the supply of natural resources is inexhaustible. Waste has been someone else’s problem. Rich countries ship their waste to poorer countries. This disregard for waste is also played out in the appliances and soaps we buy, how we travel, what we eat. While we enjoy a big wedding, we do not consider the waste that it produces.

Later some of us who could afford to become more conscientious started to recycle part of the waste. Despite efforts to recycle, we produce significant waste that needs to be disposed of. We merely delay the ultimate degradation. Even so, Singapore’s only landfill site will be full a decade ahead of plan. We have cluttered our homes with cheaply made stuff with short life spans, which we eventually throw away. Do we stop to wonder if the kitchen towel that we are about buy may end up in landfills?

The prevailing models are clearly failing, a fact more acutely palpable with the onset of Covid19. The pandemic’s health and economic fallout have forced us to rethink progress. Covid19 is teaching us to recalibrate economic growth. It can no longer be decoupled from social outcomes, resource depletion and environmental degradation.

For years, researchers have been evaluating an alternate model called the circular economy. Many European countries such as the Netherlands have set themselves targets for adopting the circular economy. In January 2021, the UAE government set up a circular economy council to create a framework for sustainable governance. But why would this be any different from the sustainability efforts of the past?

It is only with the circular economy that we insist on recycling back into the production process, all residual materials and the end product. It ‘closes the loop’ to transform all waste into resource. Activities like repair, reuse, recycle, repurpose, refurbish move from the fringes to the center of economic activities. They are integral to the lexicon of the circular economy. Why? Because they build closed loops of input materials, products and by-products. Waste management is a forethought, right from the time a product or service is conceptualised.

Elon Musk recently said: “We will recycle all Tesla batteries for free, forever.” Behind that self-assured declaration was Telsa’s meticulous design of its battery’s pack, module and cell. This simplifies the dismantling and recycling of batteries. Danish company Gamle Mursten reuses building waste for new buildings through a vibration technology that cleans old bricks.

At an abstract level, the circular economy mirrors nature. As we look around, we see natural phenomena as closed loop systems – the cycle of night and day, seasons, rains. A date palm is a cyclical system. Circular economy is rooted in ancient tribal philosophies of regeneration. When the world is running out of ideas, the simplest path seems to be to look for inspiration in nature.

The act of imitating life is called biomimicry, often used to solve human problems. The Wright brothers took inspiration from pigeons. Velcro, the convenient strap we use to fasten our jackets and bags was a product of biomimicry. Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral who went for a walk in the woods with his dog noticed the burdock seeds clinging to his coat and his dog. On further examining the tiny hooks on the seed, he got the idea for a fastener that he named Velcro. Eventually Velcro solved a critical problem for Nasa that was looking for a viable fastener for things in zero gravity.

Prevailing design concepts such as Cradle-to-Cradle assume that all industrial and commercial processes are nutrients. It models its processes on nature’s biological metabolism. Each product component can be designed to be continuously used and recovered. For instance, the impact of detergents on our water and soil should drive efforts for improved water stewardship.

As governments start to build their circular economy framework and policies, they will start to comb through each sector to reevaluate linear economy practices. The definition of waste will change and impact every business. They will have new incentives and targets such as extracting maximum value not just from residual flows but also from products and services. Eventually, we can expect new service-oriented models for products.

The circular economy forces us to dematerialise manufacturing through new services just as we did away with CDs in favor of a streaming music service. Each business needs to see if it can convert its product into a product-as-a-service. Perhaps it could be shared by customers and its end of life could be deferred through multiple life cycles. Consumers need to consider a product’s life span in addition to price. It just makes good economic sense.

EU believes that with an aggressive circular economy plan, by 2030 the region’s GDP will grow to create around 700,000 new jobs. However, the bigger change would be the health and environment benefits for generations to come. As we are pitted against overwhelming environmental and health challenges, we need to reframe what success means to us within the context of the circular economy. It will certainly make it easier for my mother to repair her old appliance.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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