I have for many years heard the construction industry talk of products or systems being heralded as having ‘cradle to grave’ recyclability; but I have only recently come across the concept of a ‘circular economy,’ which is the latest strategy for planning zero waste and where the ability to repair – as we do at Plastic Surgeon – should play a major role; but is barely mentioned.
Championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose, which I would describe as being the cradle to grave philosophy in its simplest sense) whereby we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life. ‘Cradle to womb’ might be an apt description for this full circle, regenerative approach.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was formed in 2010 to “inspire a generation to rethink, redesign and build a positive future. The Foundation believes that the circular economy provides a coherent framework for systems level redesign and as such offers us an opportunity to harness innovation and creativity to enable a positive, regenerative economy.”
This approach could, however, transform the function of resources in the economy, and will require a totally new mindset in order to succeed: companies and individuals will need to learn fresh approaches to developing everything from consumer goods to construction systems which engender an ‘afterlife’ as part of their design DNA.
Waste from factories, for example, would become a valuable input to another process – and products could be repaired, reused or upgraded instead of thrown away.
The foundation’s website describes the basics of being regenerative in the following terms: “The circular economy is a generic term for an economy that is regenerative by design. Materials flows are of two types, biological materials, designed to reenter the biosphere, and technical materials, designed to circulate with minimal loss of quality, in turn entraining the shift towards an economy ultimately powered by renewable energy.”
Here at Plastic Surgeon we can empathize with this, because we know that if everyone in the world lived as people do in the developed West, we would need three planet Earths to sustain us. What we don’t get is the fact that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation barely mentions the word ‘repair’ as being a crucial aspect of a successful circular economy, although their system diagram does make mention of maintaining, and cosmetic cleaning during re-use and re-distribution. We would argue repair should be integral when you consider the huge amount of energy that is consumed in the manufacturing process of, for example, kitchen worktops, or shower trays.
We accept that the work of the foundation is ongoing – what we would like the organization to consider is that ‘repair’ should be given the crucial role it deserves as part of any zero waste strategy, whether you are looking at a circular or a linear economy.