The Future is Circular

How many of us give more than a cursory thought to our consumerism? Perhaps our bank account or credit cards might give us a nudge once in a while but other than that? A programme like Blue Planet may well be a wakeup call. When we see the impact of our behaviours on the natural world we might feel guilty. But does it last? What can we do as individuals that can change things? What about up cycling and joining the circular economy?

Up cycling has its origin in the 1990s. It’s had a quarter of a century to morph into an acceptable aspect of contemporary living. It’s been chic and on trend. Witness any flea market or upmarket, design start up to see scaffold boards re-emerge as furniture and shelving or palettes transformed into tables, units and gardening accessories. Yet the circular economy is not only about arty design. It’s about a contemporary modus operandi. It’s about treading more lightly on the planet and being mindful of the resources we use. Instead of a linear approach to manufacturing, one where you take resources, make a product, use and dispose. At the end of the products useful life it is returned back into the system and recycled to be used again. Reducing the need for raw materials.

A circular economy puts people, real human beings at its heart.

Everyone would be well advised to buy into this approach to living, consuming and operating on a planet that has never witnessed such a population explosion. If we did nothing more than we do today our consumption would simply continue to rise as less well-developed economies begin to join the consumer economy. This is where we would rather buy, discard and be passive about what we choose to have in our lives. We then lose the ability to control those possessions and services. Our cares are less about preventing waste and more about conspicuous consumption.

It’s taken just a few years to lose our ability and desire to repair

Less than a century ago, in the UK at least, people were in control of the things they owned. They knew how to fix and repair. Objects were regularly up-cycled. Old shoe leather was put into service as a hinge. Old bed sheets were made into cleaning cloths. Shirts had their collars turned and stockings were always repaired. Now we spend money on jeans that look distressed before we’ve even put a leg into them!

Valve radios, transistors and the beginning of tech

Back in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War a domestic tech appliance was represented by a valve radio. If it ceased to function, a screwdriver would get you into the back and a replacement valve was easy to source and simple to replace. Most people owned pushbikes and general knowledge included: bike maintenance, puncture repair, fitting a new tyre and replacing a chain. There was little in life that would go wrong without some timely individual intervention. However, the transistor radio was invented the year before, in 1947 so the status quo was definitely being disrupted. The shift from mechanical and analogue electronic technology had already begun.

Objects of beauty, like the original I-pod were quickly consigned to the dustbin of history

However, compare this scenario to the built in obsolescence we have bought into today. Objects of beauty, like the original I-pod were consigned to the dustbin of history when they failed within a couple of years. The boxes appear to have more cachet for collectors than the tech they contained. So what does that mean for the wealth of materials being sent to landfill? The facts and figures make for eye watering reading!

-By the end of 2018 the amount of e-waste generation is expected to reach almost 50 million tons globally. Which to provide scale is almost the same weight as 7,000 Eiffel Towers or 140,000 airbus A380’s.

-According to a United Nations reports, only 16 percent of total global e-waste generation in 2014 was recycled.

-Almost 100% of e-waste could be recycled.

The best offering, in terms of recycling was the development of reclaiming metals policies and spare parts being more easily extracted from outmoded electronics. This is known in the industry as “the outer circle’. Yet, in general, most people are prevented from repairing and reusing. More than likely it will only be larger organizations that can profit from such salvage reclamations.

The future lies with the ‘inner circle’

This is where we actually take control of the gadgets we own and begin to understand that irresponsible consumerism is damaging on so many levels. If there are places that can fix electronics, then we immediately start to have options. If services are available to 3D print spare parts, then there is no reason to discard anything. Every object should have what amounts to a right for another life! This is where we take more control and stop being passive consumers, ready to take on whatever happens to be the next expensive iteration. We need to be more circular and less linear.

Put people and smaller businesses at the vanguard of change

If we are to have any chance of reversing the throwaway philosophy that has been prevalent since the 1960s communities, economies and countries will benefit. When people feel empowered then things happen. Yes, it is a political and economic shift in approach. What it does is put people and smaller businesses at the vanguard instead of trailing behind. Yes, telegrams, typewriters and the fax are gone but landlines are about to follow suit for domestic customers. The payphone is also in its death throes.

Technology can certainly do its best to assist this grass roots movement.

Social media has a significant part to play in gathering like-minded people together to make inroads into how people can value their possessions and keep hold of them. Check out Pinterest if you want to be amazed at the hacks, up cycling, recycling and repurposing ideas on display. This is crazy in one sense when you see how manufacturers seem to prevent us from having much choice about fixing things. Have you noticed shoes, for example, many are being manufactured that are impossible to repair? If you keep a TV more than a few years it also becomes uneconomic to fix. A plasma display TV is all but gone. A Nokia 8210 is now a museum piece, but we should be able to use them if we wish. How many dead phones are cluttering up your house?

Scotch the expectation and belief that a gadget cannot be repaired

People expect some gadget can never be repaired. Therefore, we shrug and it is just discarded. CD players become obsolete. This is part of the Darth Vader style of design where you are unable to get inside of an object. For those who grew up in the CD era and re-bought all their vinyl on this new format it’s galling to see them gather dust once again. Perhaps people, historically, had more empathy with the objects that cost such a large part of a salary to purchase. Youngsters don’t actually see the need for possessions per se. A smart phone can hold books, music, function as a wallet, a librarian, assistant, researcher and teacher. People can even make the odd call too!

However, a shift in mental approach could actually change everything.

When we repair things, we understand how they work, we get why they are made in such a way. In addition, we can see the ingenuity, vision and also the energy and resources that make up the things we simply take for granted. Hundreds and thousands of kilograms of electronic waste is created across the UK every year. We have to ask ourselves just how sustainable this behaviour really is.

Is this just hyperbole or do we have the power to create a repair economy?

You may be reading this and wondering how practical it is to try and turn the tide. On the one hand it will probably have to start small with discrete groups and communities making a difference locally. However, until the debate is heard and acted upon by politicians and policy makers then it’s unlikely to have a massive impact. That’s not a reason not to be part of this consciousness shift.

Make reusing and repairing a priority

Communities can demand that repair stations exist alongside municipal waste tips. Aligning the two actions will prompt people to sort through their waste. They can then decide what can be recycled, what might be reused or repurposed by others and what components might well be usefully extracted before being thrown away. Experiments by individuals that have cut their annual waste down to a coffee jar demonstrate it’s doable. Yet for mere mortals considerable help needs to be on hand to assist in that miraculous achievement. Basically we need to make reusing and repairing a priority in the way we manage and create waste. If we could 3D print our spare parts that would be quite a start wouldn’t you say?

If you feel motivated to act then look at what you can save, recycle, repair, repurpose or donate to an organisation that can do some or all these things. On the other hand if you know there are machines you own in need of a spare part then why wait?

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about the principles of the circular economy and what action is being taken then we strongly recommend visiting the Ellen Macarthur Foundation website.