When the world is facing the same issue, you don’t just change one thing; you have to change the entire system. Any systemic change must involve a significant shift in the way we think. It means challenging culturally-conditioned ideas about what we need as a global society and as individuals, and disrupting ingrained notions about “the good life.”
How many of us grew up hearing the expression ‘out with the old, in with the new?’ When we apply that to ideas toward sustainability, new process design, and circular economy business models, it works.
But that way of thinking isn’t useful when we’re dealing with stuff, namely products that don’t break down, like those made with polymers, alloys, and metals. ‘Out with the old and in with the new’ forces us to withdraw alarming amounts of materials from a finite supply of resources without replenishing them. Not only do such habits deplete our natural environment, but they also produce toxic waste that puts all the Earth’s creatures at great risk – including ourselves.
There is an urgent need to find a better way to deal with the plastic problem, for example. Our current way of producing and “recycling” materials is ineffective in the long term, and it will likely meet a hard and painful finish.
New Habits Or A New Process Design?
The problem is that we’re not going to stop manufacturing, producing, selling, and buying. We need our fridges, washing machines, mobile phones, and the like. We’ve spawned a society that shops and consumes for sport, relief from boredom, and escape from fear to feel more secure in the uncertainty of today’s world. We’ve also created a competitive race in which the things we own become identity badges – a way to distinguish ourselves from each other and position ourselves in different echelons of society.
But let’s not get too caught up in the psychobabble – we’re human beings, and we like our stuff. The psychological shift required to transform our shopping and lifestyle habits is far more stupendous than mediating the consequences of our behaviours. So, we have to find a solution that supports our attachment to material security and capitalistic ventures that doesn’t continue to harm the environment, but instead, works toward its regrowth and vitality.
Are we up for such a task?
To start, we have to deconstruct the terms we use. Sustainability is a popular catch-phrase and concept, but it’s a bit outdated. Sustainable practices may help maintain the ecological status quo, but they don’t incite a new way of thinking. Sustainability is a bit too restrictive because it requires us to drastically reduce what we consume, which ultimately impacts lifestyle to our hedonistic detriment in many cases.
Of course we should all take steps toward a more conscious consumerism while also being realistic about the quality of life we wish to have.
Regenerative practices allow us to maintain the freedoms and pleasures associated with our current rates of consumption in ways that not only avoid harming the planet but function to restore and enhance its health.
A Circular Economy Business Model.
A circular economy is a collective effort involving small and large businesses at local and global levels. Both individuals and organizations take ownership of the work involved and make productive contributions to the economy and environment. Conceptually, it recognizes that a change in systems is necessary for the well-being of the economy at every level, rather than small confined fixes that provide short-term solutions.
A central question in a circular economy is how can the waste we produce build and regenerate rather than deplete natural resources?
The amount of emissions produced by a company’s activities, including its supply chain, is a measure of its carbon footprint. To reduce it, they must find a way to offset residual carbon emissions by creating CO2 neutral supply chains.
Let’s look at products like washing machines and refrigerators and life anchors like mobile phones. The average lifespan of such a household appliance is about 10 years, a mobile phone about two to three years. While manufacturers are beginning to develop recycling programs, these items often end up in landfills, producing toxic waste. How can we benefit from those items beyond their shelf-life to minimize – or ideally – eradicate their impact on the natural environment?
Reincarnating resources requires rethinking and redesigning such products and their components and packaging to develop materials that can be safely broken down to feed the earth and create new stuff. It’s a more intelligent kind of recycling than just reusing materials. Circular economy business models work to create new raw materials so the goods we use today become the resources we’ll rely on tomorrow.
One such model motivates consumers to return products to the manufacturers, which then breaks down and redesigns their technical and biological parts to be useful elsewhere, such as in agriculture. This is an example of a systems change that involves both buyer and producer. It intercepts our conditioned habit of discarding products that don’t function anymore or that we no longer need and reincarnates their composite parts, like a redistribution of energy. Thereby, we reduce the amount of waste such products create and lessen the impact on the natural environment.
In another example, some biotech researchers are discovering ways to break down certain unrecyclable plastics, like polymers, and different industries are capitalizing on these processes. Returning plastics to their monomeric form may establish the foundation necessary for replacing nonrenewable energy sources. Other processes may help feed the creation of entirely new products (1).
A circular economy business model requires more than just the company itself. Manufacturers, company operators, and consumers all play a part in fueling the system to produce sustainable change to our infrastructure and economy. It changes the bones of the operating system, and adopts a new paradigm that transforms resources into a healthier, regenerative environment.
The potential for ecological innovation that resides within a circular economy business model is infinite. But it requires fresh intelligence and motivated people to do the work. Collaborating with universities through open innovation can help generate new ideas for a regenerative future.