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Back to nature? Circular economy then and now

In this post, Cynnal Cymru’s Sustainability Advisor, Dr Karolina Rucinska, explores the origins and re-emergence of the circular economy. The post is dedicated to Dr Peter Treadwell, with whom Karolina worked closely on the Circular Economy project and who will be sadly missed.

The natural world operates on a closed-loop system where nothing goes to waste. Everything that dies or is extracted eventually returns to the soil or transforms into something else, processed and used by other symbiotic organisms. This is in stark contrast to the linear system of the human world, where high volumes of organic and inorganic materials are produced with no efficient process to eliminate waste and pollution. The planet and its inhabitants struggle to cope with the sheer volume of waste generated. To tackle this global problem, we must shift to a symbiotic, circular, and closed-loop mindset.

What is circularity

Luckily, there are dedicated non-profit organisations, companies, and public institutes that have worked tirelessly to embed this concept into all our lives. Therefore today, we speak of a “circular economy”.

According to one of the leading voices on this topic, the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the circular economy is:

“A systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. It is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature.

It is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials. Transitioning to a circular economy entails decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. This represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.”

(Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation – Finding a common language — the circular economy glossary)

Rather than simply improving recycling, a circular economy connects the post-product lifecycle with pre-production, which is largely disconnected.

The great disconnect

As you read these words, memories may flood back to when waste was not part of your household vernacular. You might even recall times when every part of the animal was utilised, clothing was shared, and purchases were limited to necessity. Even now, it is commonplace for factories to sell their waste to other industries, which then repurposed it as raw materials.

The notion that households and factories in the past generated little waste due to financial constraints is valid. Historian William Cronon notes that early 20th century Chicago, the world’s meat production capital, had an overwhelming amount of animal by-products such as skin, fat, and hair. This forced the supply chain to repurpose them, leading to economic diversification and specialisation. However, that does not mean there were no issues just because a producer found another use for waste—quite the contrary. Mass meat processing in the early 20th century, although it seemed futuristic (the pig de-assembly line influenced Henry Ford to create an assembly line for his cars), it created a lock-in for farmers who had nowhere else to sell to, workers who were tied to the factory line, and the consumer who lost small-farm butchers. The animals, bred en masse and killed en masse, and the environment, which suffered from polluted rivers and overgrazed plains, were also locked in the system of not their creation.

The tipping point”, Sarah Hill writes, “came over several decades towards the end of the nineteenth century, when consumption got severed from production and when manufacturers no longer relied on the by-products of consumption to make new things. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, mechanised extraction of natural resources rendered such creative practices obsolete in the United States and England. And the steady outpouring of new goods, fashioned from new materials, made it more and more pointless to hold onto anything for long, not only when things broke, but also when things became ‘outdated’. (Hill, 2016:178) . On top of all this, so much of what was produced was made from materials that cannot be reused and will not decompose, choking the earth.

Changing natures of circular economy

Since the 1960s, environmental movements have advocated for a circular economy as a response to the mass production and disposal of goods. Ekins et al. (2019) define the circular economy as having two components: the flow of materials through an economy and the necessary economic conditions to support that flow. Although terms like sustainable management and industrial ecology gained popularity during this time, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Stahel proposed a spiral-loop system that allowed for economic growth and progress while minimizing environmental harm. In Pearce et al.’s “Blueprint for a Green Economy” in the 1990s, the term “circular economy” was coined, and movements like biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle have since furthered the concept. However, Boulding’s 1960 essay “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” first called for the stewardship of future generations by criticizing the linear take-make-use-dispose system.

The dispersed origins of a circular economy are important because, as often happens, the past re-emerges while new ideas try to establish themselves. Blomsma and Brennan for instance, talked of a circular economy in terms of framing a narrative around handling waste and resources in the early days and from the 1980s onward, the discussions were framed around waste as a source of value. But in the 2020s, there is a much wider and broader framing, which we see in the definition by the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s famous butterfly diagram:

The circular economy is gaining traction in policy and private sectors, leading to diverse interpretations and evaluations. However, it is important to note that it is not solely about improving recycling but rather about reimagining production, usage, and regenerative potential for the environment and society. Adopting design and system thinking, as well as user-centric and environment-centric designs, can assist those embarking on this journey. This may mean asking new questions about things we buy or produce. For instance, as a customer, consider a T-shirt you purchased years ago that no longer fits. Did the company provide a way to return it for repurposing, or did you donate it or throw it away? Were you informed about the sourcing and manufacturing of the material, as well as the conditions under which it was produced and shipped? In a circular economy, this T-shirt would never end up in a landfill. Instead, the entire supply chain, from cotton fields to customers, would be part of a larger symbiotic system where waste is eliminated, nature is thriving, and so are workers and communities.

However, the most captivating aspect of circular thinking is symbiosis, which emphasizes cooperation and unlikely partnerships rather than an input-and-output model. This approach involves completely rethinking how we interact with products and services, from refilling stations to utilising technology to treat wastewater and reusing organic waste without causing pollution.

Although the concept and the application may still evolve, progress towards its realisation has already begun and shows no signs of slowing down. We recommend exploring the case studies featured on the Circular Economy Innovation Communities (CEIC) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation websites to gain the latest insights and practical knowledge on applying circular economy principles.

Talk to us

This whistle-stop tour of a circular economy is not detailed enough to capture every nuance and development. To help us grow the Welsh circular muscle, please tell us what you want to know about the circular economy – or better still, what you have learnt, experimented with or successfully implemented.  But please also tell us what a circular economy means to you.

You can also read more about Cynnal Cymru’s latest work to develop an understanding of the circular economy in Wales.

References 

Benyus, J. M. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature. (William Morrow, New York) 

Blomsma, F., & Brennan, G. (2017). The emergence of circular economy: a new framing around prolonging resource productivity.  Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21(3), 603-614.  Source: Wiley Online Library.

Braungart, M., & McDonough, W. (2009). Cradle to cradle. Random House.

Cronon, W. (2009) Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. WW Norton & Company, 2009.  

Ekins, P., Domenech, T., Drummond, P., Bleischwitz, R., Hughes, N. and Lotti, L. (2019), “The Circular Economy: What, Why, How and Where”, Background paper for an OECD/EC Workshop on 5 July 2019 within the workshop series “Managing environmental and energy transitions for regions and cities”, Paris

Hill, S. (2016). Making garbage, making land, making cities: A global history of waste in and out of place.  Global Environment, 9(1), 166-195.Available at JSTOR

The Ellen McArthur Foundation: Finding a common language – the circular economy glossary.

Pearce, D., Markandya, A., & Barbier, E. (2013).  Blueprint 1: for a green economy. Routledge, London. Available via the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Stahel, W. (1982). The product life factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper).  Product-Life Institute.  

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