Circular economy – systemic sustainability

Circular economy – systemic sustainability

Photo: Creative Commons/Wikimedia
The words you are reading right now, are likely projected through the screen of a computer. It could be very old, brand new, or something in between. Maybe you bought it yourself. Maybe it belongs to your university, place of work or a public library. Maybe you have borrowed it from a family member or a friend, just to check Facebook, and somehow ended up clicking onto this article. Maybe you are not reading this on a computer at all – you are using your phone or tablet. It could be an iPhone, Samsung, Huawei or something completely different. No matter what kind of device is transmitting these sentences to you, did you ever stop to think about how it was made? The design-process? What raw materials its different components consist of? How it was assembled? Who it was assembled by? Which mode of transport carried it from the factory to the shop where it was eventually bought? How about what happens when you discard it for not working anymore, or for wanting a newer model?

No matter what kind of device is transmitting these sentences to you, did you ever stop to think about how it was made? The design-process? What raw material its different components consist of? How it was assembled? Who it was assembled by? Which mode of transport carried it from the factory to the shop where it was eventually bought?


No matter what kind of device is transmitting these sentences to you, did you ever stop to think about how it was made? The design-process? What raw material its different components consist of? How it was assembled? Who it was assembled by? Which mode of transport carried it from the factory to the shop where it was eventually bought?

All these questions are integral parts of a circular economic system. As the name would suggest, such a system is built on the principle of circularity – it is a regenerative system in which the resources and energy put into it are kept in a closed, continuous loop, feeding back into the economy through methods like reuse, remanufacturing and recycling. This model stands in contrast to a linear economic system, characterized by ‘take, make, consume, throw away’. In the linear system, finite reserves are depleted to produce consumable and disposable goods, leading to large amounts of waste, emission and energy leakage.

To illustrate the difference between a circular and linear economic system, founder of the industrial sustainability concept, Walter R. Stahel, came up with the expression “Cradle to Cradle” as opposed to the traditionally corporate “Cradle to Grave”. Rather than going directly from ‘birth to death’, products and process in the circular economy are anchored in a system of ‘lifecycle development’. Instead of going to their graves after having served their single-use purpose, they give life to and sustain ever-new products and processes.

Instead of going to their graves after having served their single-use purposes, products and process in the circular economy give life to and sustain ever-new products and processes.


The circular economic model is inspired by living systems. It is an example of biomimicry in that it attempts to incorporate solutions from nature in human design. Just the way trees drop their leaves to the ground in winter to conserve energy while also providing food to smaller life forms and enriching the soil with nutrients, so our economic system should be designed to sustain, restore and regenerate itself and its surroundings.

Unlike what the 20th century’s industrial culture of mass production and mass consumption might have us think, our economic system does not need to function like a machine. Rather, it can be conceptualized like a living organism, a metabolic structure, consisting of complex and interconnected sub-systems feeding into and off each other. For such a system to work successfully, all sub-systems need to be healthy and sound. The primary focus of a circular economy, then, is overall system health at all levels.

The nitrogen cycle is an example of a circular system. It engages different ecosystems in a wide range of mutual, interdependent conversion processes. Photo: Wikimedia

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a prominent advocate for circular economy, this system “seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social or natural”. This aim presupposes a new definition of growth, which includes benefits to society at large. In this new definition, growth is not measured simply in terms of economic profit.

Rather, it looks at the economy as a holistic system where individuals, the environment and organizations need to prosper. The foundation claims such a system can be achieved by employing the following three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution: In a circular economy, there is no waste. Products are intended to have a near eternal lifespan, first through long-lasting design, second through reassembly, remanufacturing and redistribution. The system as a whole is also designed to minimize any leakage of resources and energy.  
  • Keep products and materials in use: The circular economic model distinguishes between consumable and durable products by establishing two different production cycles – the biological and the technical. Consumables with a short lifespan should be made with biological, non-toxic and compostable components, that can be safely returned to the biosphere at their end of life. Products that cannot be made with biological components, like computers or engines, are designed to be durable, reusable and upgradeable. The technical cycle, then, aims to recover and restore both products and energy.
  • Regenerate natural systems: The biological cycle of consumable goods in a circular economy is designed to feed back into nature. Processes like composting regenerate living systems, which in turn feed into the economy. This symbiotic relationship makes the circular economy a regenerative system, putting it in contrast to the extractive system of a linear economy. Further, both the biological and technical cycles in circular economies are fuelled by renewable energy. This prevents resources from being depleted, the environment from being polluted and living organisms – including human beings – from being subjected to harmful emissions.

The biological cycle of consumable goods in a circular economy is designed to feed back into nature. Processes like composting regenerate living systems, which in turn feed into the economy. This symbiotic relationship makes the circular economy a regenerative system, putting it in contrast to the extractive system of a linear economy.


The central premise for circular economies is that it requires a systemic shift. It’s not enough to make adjustments to the traditional, linear economy, making it greener and more socially responsible. Rather, it presupposes a whole new way of thinking.

By Johanna Kalsaas


Sources:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. What is a circular economy? https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept

European Commission. (2018) Circular economy. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm

Making it Magazine. (2013) The circular economy: Interview with Walter Stahel. http://www.makingitmagazine.net/?p=6793

World Economic Forum. From linear to circular—Accelerating a proven concept. http://reports.weforum.org/toward-the-circular-economy-accelerating-the-scale-up-across-global-supply-chains/from-linear-to-circular-accelerating-a-proven-concept/

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