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Waste Reduction

Three untaught lessons regarding the circular economy

I remember vividly the first time the concept of circular economies was brought to my awareness. The professor Conny Bakker was in the tiniest lecture room in the department of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. “Waste is design gone wrong,” she explained to us. It was the department’s (probably at least the school’s) first class on circular design for products, it was only an course to a few undergraduate students. The circular economy appeared to be the exact concept I had been looking for. It offered the design and business a leading part in the tale of an improved and more resilient future.

This concept of circular economics has proved to be a source of inspiration for not only me as well as many other companies that are considering changing their business models, and multilateral organizations such as, for instance that of the European Commission working on the Green Deal.

It is clear that as this process of evolving certain key insights from the early thinkers might have vanished in the ongoing public debate. The majority of those who established the basis of circular economics including Braungart as well as McDonough (Cradle to Cradle), Janine Benyus (Biomimicry) and Gunter Pauli (Blue Economy) claim that at the root of a circular economic system is the shift to utilizing the latest insights in technology, and particularly the feedback-rich systems and living systems specifically.

Systems view is a way to take the drab toolbox and substitutes it for an outlook, or lens to view the possibilities of an real circular economy. It is apparent that the most important lessons, which were lost through the years require a perspective that encompasses greater complexity than the mechanistic, linear perspective. To ensure that discussions move away from being a simple list or toolbox to the larger concept of a circular economy it is crucial to re-examine and highlight some of the concepts about the circular economy that have been overlooked over the years.

It may appear unproductive and inefficient as the ground is sprayed with blossoms of cherry however, this abundance has been developed over time to serve a variety of functions. Also, what appears to be garbage is actually food to the system. It’s efficient. In contrast, the majority of the new or refreshed business models proposed in the work of Accenture or ING (see in Box 1.) focus on reducing the use of materials or enhancing usage rather than looking at the way value is created in a given system. These concepts are based on efficiency. Do you think that’s an issue?

Sally Goerner may provide an answer to this question: she has revealed that the most efficient systems have an interplay between efficacy (fewer connecting nodes) as well as resilience (many connections and nodes). If a system can strike the proper balance between both, it can create an “window of viability” (see chart 1)

As in myceliums the combination of resiliency and efficiency makes the system effective. This is a feature that is common of living things. When there is a lot of tiny and niched connections, it will be difficult to move nutrients quickly to various parts. When there is only bigger mycelium threads this becomes an issue if there’s not enough nutrients at the point that the thread connects to soil. Efficiency alone can cause bristles.

Imagine a tree that has one leaf. This may be effective particularly if the area of the one leaf is similar to an ordinary tree. However, how can such a tree cope with shocks, for instance small damage from storms – the possibility that it will fail catastrophically is very high because there isn’t any redundancy.

Lesson two: respect diversity

The circular economic system that is focused exclusively on efficiency in the supply side will end up being fragile and boring. Diversity can spark the ability to be creative and contributes to the resilience or effectiveness of the system – it could be a matter of the diversity of business scale or diversity in the cultural landscape for instance. The reason that diversification in the circular economic system requires greater prominence than it currently does is due to feedback playing more of a role in the overall system.

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Jane S. King

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