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How the Circular Economy Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges

How the Circular Economy Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges

Posted on 10 Dec 2022

“Waste is a design flaw” - Sophie Thomas

In our last article, we looked at the benefits that adopting a sustainable approach to city dwelling had on the environment and population. We now look at one of the key economic strategies being heralded as a solution to creating a financially and environmentally sustainable future for us all.

One of the major barriers to creating a sustainable future has been the notion that there is a tradeoff between financial stability and environmental sustainability. Round the world champion yachts person Ellen McArhur was accustomed to working with the weather and environment when she became the fastest person to sail around the world single handedly in 2005. She is now the champion of the economic model known as the Circular Economy. This model is a seismic shift away from the linear model that has been used by human societies for millennia. The traditional approach has often been referred to as ‘take, make, waste’, where natural resources are mined and turned into products that are eventually destined to be disposed of in landfill, or burned in incinerators. 

The Circular Economy by contrast uses principles such as reuse, repair, sharing, refurbishment and remanufacturing to create a closed-loop system that reduces or eliminates the need to harvest the world’s natural resources. The use of new technology is leveraged, as are sustainable energy sources. Products, materials and infrastructure are maintained and designed to last longer, be easily maintained, and eventually effectively recycled. Recycling involves materials either being used as a component of the manufacture of new products, or being naturally decomposed into organic waste that can fuel the growth of food production.

The Principles of the Circular Economy   

There are three main foundation stones of the circular economy:

1. Eliminating waste and pollution

As our resources are finite, the traditional linear economic model that does utilize the fabric of products at the end of their useful lives cannot be maintained indefinitely. Linear model products are designed to be effective during their lives, but not at the end. To take an often quoted example of a crisp packet; This is a one-use item that is specifically designed for one purpose, and importantly has no reuse capabilities. When the tasty contents have been enjoyed by the individual, the packet is discarded and eventually placed in landfill where it will remain indefinitely. Within nature however, everything is designed to both have a purpose, as well as being used as the eventual source of nutrition and energy for future items. 

Although the example of the humble crisp packet may not seem significant, the principle is also applied to other, seemingly permanent items such as buildings, roads and cars. 

With the Circular Economic model, part of every product design is the capability to be recycled or reused in some form. This capability is seen as just as important a design factor as the function of the product itself.

New research has shown that seaweed can be used to create edible packaging for food. This in effect matches the lifetime of the product to the lifetime of the packaging. Seaweed is naturally high in vitamins, and can be transformed into food packaging without the use of chemicals. The European Brand and Packaging association helps organizations develop their technologies, and has championed new startups develop edible plastic-like packaging to be used to keep fruit and vegetables fresher for longer, as well as an innovative company who has developed an edible alternative to the the disposable plastic water bottle.

Other organizations are eliminating waste by simply eliminating the packaging. High street cosmetics companies are looking at new ways to transform liquid products into a solid form that can be sold with little or no packaging. Other shops are offering their products only on a refill basis - the Refill Larder supplies consumers with purely packaging-free products such as food and cosmetics. 

Eliminating waste goes beyond packaging however. Clothing manufacturers are developing new technologies that eliminate the need to use water in the cloth dying process. This eliminates the production of toxic waste water by using carbon dioxide as a solvent for the dye, creating a closed-loop system that has minimal environmental impact.  

2. Circulating products and materials:

This principle maintains the intrinsic value of products. Products are kept in use indefinitely, either in the form of the original product, or by utilizing the components in other products. Any components that cannot be reused would need to be biodegradable. 

This can be achieved by thinking about two separate and fundamental cycles, the technical (involving finite materials) and the biological (involving renewables).

Technical Cycle

The Technical Cycle understands that products are more valuable as a whole, than as their constituent parts. New business models can be developed to do this, such as shifting away from product ownership to product leasing and sharing. This makes more use of the product itself, utilizing time periods when it would otherwise not be in use when owned by a single individual. Products can also be reused through resale, and their lifetimes extended by having the ability to be repaired built into their design. As a last resort, when a product really cannot be used any longer, it is essential that the individual parts can be utilized in other products, and not discarded to waste. 

Previously we discussed sustainability within transportation, and the challenges facing car manufacturers regarding battery life. New technologies developed by MIT researchers are repurposing old electric vehicle batteries for mass solar energy storage. After the high performance characteristics required by vehicles are lost, the batteries are still effective at the less intensive recharge/discharge cycle used by solar energy installations. 

Biological Cycle

If a biodegradable product cannot be reused, then it can be circulated back into the circular economy through biodegradation. Through the process of either composting or anaerobic digestion, organic products can be transformed into nutrients such as  nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium that can in turn be used to grow new biological products. Some products made from materials such as wood and cotton can be recycled by either the technical or biological cycles.


For both the technical and biological cycles, product design is the key. For example when textiles are made from both synthetic and natural materials, separation is made very difficult, resulting in a product that cannot be recycled. However, an opposite example is furniture - with good design the biological materials such as wood and cotton can be easily separated from the technical materials such as nails. Using biodegradable materials for the paint and glues in furniture also makes recycling easier and more cost effective.

Food packaging has been a major source of non recyclable waste, both on land and eventually in our oceans. New technologies are being developed to create compostable packaging from agricultural by-products and mycelium (mushroom roots). The mycelium acts like a biological glue that feeds off the agricultural by-products, grows in about five days, and can be molded into a variety of shapes. The material is then heat treated and dehydrated to stop the growth and make sure there are no spores or allergens.

Although there are many new technologies being developed, the Circular Economy can also utilize and repurpose old ideas. In the UK, over 55 million plastic bottles and the equivalent of 132,000 wheelie bins worth of plastic have been saved from landfill by consumers having their daily milk delivered in reusable glass bottles. The traditional milkman does not just deliver milk however, but a variety of products from fresh fruit and vegetables to croissants, all served in recyclable and reusable containers. 

3. Regeneration of nature:

The regeneration of nature occurs through moving away from the linear economic model of take-make-waste to a more sustainable and circular economy. We have discussed the principles of regenerative agriculture - the circular economy supports this with respect to the broader economic and social model. The result will be a greater biodiversity, less reliance on chemical fertilizers, healthier and more nutritious foods and greater soil quality. This is a model based on the natural environment, and how it has evolved to work. Forests are naturally self-sustaining - the leaves that fall one year act as fertilizer for the future years. 

Using regenerative agriculture, soils will hold more water naturally, making them less susceptible to drought, as well as reducing the likelihood of floods during heavy rainfall. Farmland becomes more akin to natural ecosystems, increasing biodiversity and restoring the natural carbon cycle, reducing the agricultural impact of climate change.

The circular flow of raw materials also reduces the need to mine additional resources, allowing more land to be taken away from environmentally damaging mining activity to natural and sustainable food production. Using and developing renewable energy sources is a critical element to this aspect of the circular economy.

An example of a practical approach to natural regeneration can be seen in São Paulo where the municipality purchases food from local regenerative suppliers at 30% above the market rate. This has the effect of reducing the urban sprawl of the area, as well as the use of traditional and harmful agricultural methods.

Weather Patterns

Stabilizing global climate, reducing unnecessary waste, creating cleaner oceans and reducing the likelihood of extreme weather events is a global challenge that will require rethinking our traditional economic philosophy as well as having a greater and more detailed understanding of our weather and climate patterns.

The joined-up strategy that the circular economic model presents is dependent on new technology as well as having a detailed and accurate understanding of climate, both short and long term. OpenWeather supplies a range of products that can be utilized to create a detailed view of our historic weather patterns as well as giving detailed and accurate forecast data. For example, our Solar Radiation API gives current, historic and forecast solar radiation data that can help the solar energy industry plan their production, storage and distribution strategies.

Although the Circular Economy has many supporters, the practicality and achievability has been questioned. In our next article we will be wearing Edward De Bono’s black hat and examining the flaws of the system, and if a hybrid economic model may be the answer to achieving the goal of economic growth and zero carbon emissions.  

About OpenWeather:

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