The eternal circle
Reading time approx.15 min. The eternal circleHow a circular economy may save the climate, secure raw materials and turn us into happy wasters.
„Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” R. Buckminster Fuller, architect, designer and visionary (1895–1983)
At the beginning of this story is a circle. A round hole that is drilled in the ground on some end of the earth or other to get raw materials – a metal, a fossil fuel, a rare mineral – out of the earth. The raw material is then transported away, processed, sold, used and then recycled or burned. This is how the materials cycle works in our industrial society. Naturally, it’s not really a cycle, but a one-way street that starts at a hole and ends at a landfill. And because it's that way, more and more people who drive the economy are contemplating a genuine alternative.
At first it was individual eco-pioneers, then established companies, such as automaker BMW, real estate specialists Drees & Sommer, and Ruhrkohle AG, seeking to tap into the concept of a circular economy. That’s an enormous task. Because the circular economy stands for far more than resource conservation, more efficient production processes and higher recycling rates. In a genuine circular economy, cars, houses, packaging and clothing are designed to be transformed into new products at the end of their useful lives.
Old to new. Reclamation instead of downcycling. A circular economy instead of a trash economy:It’s not just an ecological necessity, but also a promising business model. In a circular economy alone, economists see revenue potential of €4.5 trillion by the year 2030.
How do we get there? How realistic is it to turn our economic one-way street into a roundabout? What might we gain along the way, and what will we have to leave behind?
Plant a cherry tree
Stage 1Plant a cherry tree
It's been almost 20 years since architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart published a book called “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. Their cradle-to-cradle approach was a radically alternative model to the conventional cradle-to-coffin mindset. The authors replace the formula “take, consume, dispose” with the principle of “take, consume, take, consume”. Trash would be history, and waste would no longer be waste – resources would be seamlessly reused again.
“We would no longer be consumers of televisions, washing machines or cars, but users,” postulated Braungart, a former Greenpeace activist and founder of the EPEA environmental foundation in Hamburg. “All these materials can be designed so that they go into the cycles without loss of value, and people can use them lavishly.”
The two authors’ economic model is based on the life cycle of a cherry tree: That of an organism that can lavishly shed leaves, fruit and pits every year, because new life arises from all of it. And with all this, it also nourishes microbes, plants, people and soil organisms.
“Cherry tree economy” may sound esoteric, but it reflects a down-to-earth insight: Our planet's resources are finite. And so is the amount of waste we can dispose of. It’s clearly time to change course.
Recognize the necessity
Stage 2Recognize the necessity
This realization has seeped into development departments and executive suites. “The effects of unsustainable business are already being felt in the form of resource shortages, raw materials prices and climate change. Legislatures, society and the capital markets are increasingly demanding more sustainable business practices. For companies, the transformation is also a chance to position themselves in the sales and labor market of the future,” says Paul Matausch, circular economy expert at MHP. “More and more companies are rethinking things,” adds his colleague Nikolas Bradford.
“And not only as an end in itself. With the circular economy approach, companies can gain access to completely new product genres, fields of business, customer groups and markets.” Markus Diem, office administrator of Michael Braungart’s EPEA GmbH helps companies and communities change over to the circular model:“Since last year, we’ve had a huge number of queries. It’s no longer about solutions for individual products, but about complete restructuring of companies.” Right now there are actually a couple of economic pressures that are bringing ever more company leaders to rethink their business model.
Resource shortages: Raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and platinum are already scarce now – and will be more so in the future. Those who merely use them, instead of consuming them, free their companies from price and demand fluctuations.
Climate protection: Reuse of raw materials saves enormous amounts of energy used and carbon dioxide created during their extraction, refinement and disposal. “For us, CO2 emissions can only be significantly reduced if we also transfer our raw materials flow into cycles,” says Justus Löbler at BMW, which has declared the circular economy a strategic corporate goal.
Seen this way, the cherry tree approach is really a no-brainer.