Monday, March 31, 2014

Re-Thinking Progress - The Circular Economy

Bradford University, March 2014. A conference presented by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
A personal overview by Anthony Day
This post is also available as a podcast at

I came to Re-thinking Progress with my sustainability hat on. I’d read Cradle to Cradle by Braungart and McDonough a while ago and I thought it was a great idea but something for the long-term future. I left the conference knowing that ‘sustainability’ is a dirty word to many people there, and with a realisation that the circular economy is very much here and now. Throughout, we were directed to websites and books. There’s a list of links at the end of this article.

What was reinforced throughout the conference is that we currently live in a linear economy. This means that we take, make and discard. We use natural resources in our production process, create products from them and throw them away when we’ve finished. We then use more natural resources to make more products, so natural capital is depleted and the rubbish heaps get bigger and bigger. Clearly this can’t go on, so in a circular economy waste = food. Everything is re-used indefinitely, just like nature.

The sessions which I attended over the three days reinforced this basic message. Here’s what I learnt.

Alysia Garmulewicz presented “3-D printing and the circular economy”
3-D printing or additive manufacturing is a whole new system, not just a new technology. 3-D objects can be printed cheaply in the home or high precision components can be produced on site on demand. Objects can be created in plastics, metals or even food. Supply chains are radically shortened - no factory, no distribution, no inventory. There are social implications as well. The Ethical Filament Foundation helps litter-pickers from developing nations to create an income by creating feedstocks from waste. Production can be localised, and as each object can be customised the consumer becomes closely involved with the process.

Ken Webster facilitated a session on “So you think you know about the circular economy?” He told us that any economy is composed of just energy, materials and information. We worked in teams to see how the various components and policies fitted together in different ways to make either a linear or a circular economy. He introduced concepts like the Chicago Plan - all lending must be backed by deposits; the biological cascade - using materials for different purposes as they degrade throughout their life; the use of complementary currencies. His example for this was rewarding people for picking up litter (more litter!) with free bus tickets. They got free travel using spare capacity on the buses and the litter got picked up. [Many years ago I had an idea for a recycling reception centre. People would bring in newspapers, bottles, tinfoil and so on and I’d give them trading stamps in return. It never happened and who remembers Green Shield stamps now?] We need to tax things we don’t want to happen, like resource use, rather than taxing things we do want to happen, like employment.

Flora Poppelaars spoke on “Designing products for a circular economy”. Her presentation was based on her internship with Vodaphone when she examined the possibility of a re-usable mobile phone. The circular economy implies services rather than consumption. In other words a mobile phone user does not own the phone, they pay a monthly subscription for a phone service and if anything goes wrong with the handset it goes back to the manufacturer and a replacement is provided. To make this business model viable the manufacturer must be able to disassemble the handset and repair or remanufacture it. We saw how designing for disassembly is important and how it permits customisation as well as re-use. Motorola’s Project ARA and Phone Blocks (links below) both show how the consumer can choose a better camera, a louder speaker or a dual SIM configuration, or anything else to meet their needs. Flora also told us about Ask Nature, the website which shows how nature addresses problems from aeronautics to architecture and sounds to swimming and how we might adopt these techniques. 

The first day closed with a presentation by Ellen MacArthur by telepresence from HQ in the Isle of Wight. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established in 2010, backed initially by National Grid, Renault, BT, Cisco, and Kingfisher, and now by Unilever, Phillips and McKinsey as well. It is accepted at the World Economic Forum, linked with universities across the world, holds an annual summit and is planning a Disruptive Innovation Festival for October of this year.

Ellen explained how efficiency is fundamentally important, but it is a transitional strategy. Efficiency cannot be increased indefinitely. As somebody said, the laws of physics are non-negotiable. She gave us another example of the service economy, where Phillips is contracted to provide lumens, not lighting equipment. Phillips provides the lights and the electricity and the client pays for a guaranteed level of illumination. She reminded us that food waste going to landfill in a traditional linear economy represents a loss of embedded, heat, energy and fertiliser. In a circular economy this all goes back into the production process.

It was an inspiring presentation, difficult to replicate on the page. I certainly left looking forward to the next day.

I started Day 2 with the Short Talk module. James Walker, head of closed-loop innovation at Kingfisher presented “The Role of the Consumer in the Circular Economy”. He made the point that as a retailer he didn’t want consumers to stop consuming or he’d be out of business. For me, he made the most important point of the whole three days. To paraphrase: You won’t motivate consumers - or business - to change behaviour by frightening them or preaching the circular economy agenda. You need to motivate them by offering them value, not problems. For example, if we want stop people throwing old electrical items into landfill we can offer discounts or gift vouchers on part exchange. The message is key and needs to appeal to the customer. It probably won’t mention green, sustainability or the circular economy, but must be designed to stimulate the behaviour that meets those objectives. Make the consumer feel good, because problems don’t solve problems.

The second short talk was from Ken Webster on “Systems thinking, education and a circular economy.” Ken reminded us of the traditional “take - make - dispose economy” and contrasted it with the butterfly diagram of the circular economy. You can find the diagram here: The two wings of the butterfly represent the biological cycle and the technical cycle - each a closed loop as far as possible. The technical side mimics the biological side. On the technical side products are maintained to extend their lives. When this is no longer possible they are re-used or redistributed. When they no longer work at all they can be remanufactured, and when they are finally worn out the materials and components can be recycled into new. Waste and disposal in landfill is minimised. The technical cycle has recycling as part of the process, but as the last resort. Recycling in our current linear economy is frequently the first choice after disposal. It is usually incomplete, sending some parts straight to landfill, it is usually down-cycling - producing an inferior product - which itself goes to landfill in due course.
Ken told us about ordered complexity (need to look that up) and how this should be the focus of education because this is the real world. He told us that in a wired world teachers are no longer the sole source of learning. If people really want to find things out they can ignore formal education and do it anyway. “You don’t need permission for a revolution.” Things are changing.

What’s the connection between re-offending prisoners, 80,000 tons of frozen shrimp and a double-decker bus? Why, the circular economy of course! Graham Wiles from Flo-Gro Systems presented “Aquaponics and Biofloc - a circular economy solution to food security.” Apparently we eat 80,000 tons of frozen shrimp in the UK each year and these are harvested by bottom trawling, an unsustainable technique which devastates the seabed. Graham’s solution is aquaculture - growing the shrimps in tanks. But there’s more. Growing shrimps produces waste and Graham has used the waste to grow plants. Combining hydroponics with aquaculture produces aquaponics - a circular system. There’s still more! Graham has involved offenders, excluded pupils and mental patients in the construction of his aquaponic units. It’s given them motivation, self confidence and skills to move on to other jobs. Win-win-win. And the double-decker bus? Apparently he once had to install a fish farm in a bus to avoid planning restrictions.

“Circular Economy - why it makes business sense.” Ella Jamsin told us how the rapid rise of developing countries, ten times faster than the original industrial revolution, is putting pressure on resource prices and exaggerating price volatility. She reminded us that the biological cycle recycles and re-absorbs almost everything while the industrialised technical cycle ultimately sends almost everything to landfill. Successful re-use, re-manufacture and recycling depends on the initial design. Ella quoted figures showing products not designed for re-use had lower or negative values than those that had been adapted at the design stage. How do we bring products back into the supply chain rather than into the waste stream? By offering discounts for trade-in. By not selling products, but by renting their use. Car clubs are an example. The rental model makes higher quality products more easily available because consumers do not have to find a high initial purchase cost.
Education is geared to the linear economy. It is now time to change and adapt. It is now time to convince policy makers that the linear economy model is broken. The potential savings from adopting the circular economy are considerable. It has been calculated that the annual material savings on medium-life goods in the EU could be $630bn. The annual material savings on consumer goods could be $700bn. There would be energy savings as well.

“Higher Education to enable a circular economy” was a popular session facilitated by Prof. Peter Hopkinson and Stephanie Hubold. I’m not an academic, so I really went along to watch. Separated into groups, we looked at how higher education should be developed to incorporate the circular economy. My group looked at business education. We’re gong to launch the CMBA; the Circular MBA. I look forward to signing up for the one-year course!

Time for a game! Katie Whalen has developed a board game which could be the Monopoly of the 21st century. Appropriately it’s played on a circular board and it focusses on materials which are critically scarce. Each player is assigned a product which needs up to three of these resources. The object of the game is to obtain the materials and manufacture the products. The first to produce three items wins. Like Monopoly, there are wild cards. These are strategies, such as re-manufacture or redesign to save material, and players can choose whether or not to buy these. Then there are world events announced every so often by the game facilitator. Events such as massive price increases, or export bans by China - the major producer of most of these materials. Current events could be fed into the game. We had the opportunity to play with the only two sets of playing pieces that exist. I really hope this game can be commercialised. It’s a valuable teaching tool for students and for business people.

Yes, it’s still Day 2, and the final session I attended was “Teaching circular economy in a global context” by Rob de Vrind. Rob hit us with masses of pictures and masses of ideas. He took us from internet 0.0 to internet 5.0 and beyond. Here are some of the ideas he shared. Multinationals should be contained. We need to move from ego-centrism to eco-centrism. (Nice idea. Will turkeys vote for Christmas?) Tax materials, not labour. Read Jef Staes: Do diplomas kill passion and talent? Look at the Phone blocks video on YouTube. Check out the free resources at the Khan Academy. 
The internet is now responding to customised requests like liftshare and car sharing. Is social lending the end for banks? Crowd-funding? Why buy when you can borrow - especially things which you use infrequently or only for a short time? Ebay and Freecycle are part of the intelligent circular economy. Sustainability is making things less bad; it’s not the whole solution. Nature works on renewable energy, why not us? 50% of electricity in Germany comes from renewables, but only 4% in Holland. Some work to do there!
There’s 50 times as much gold in an iPhone than in the gold ores currently mined in South Africa. We use toxic materials; nature does not. Bio-based compostable plastics are available now. (Unfortunately the compostable plastic bottle is a contaminant when mixed with traditional bottles for recycling. It’s still a step in the right direction.)
Trigema makes compostable T-shirts
PUMA makes compostable shoes
DESSO carpets clean the air
Some Dulux paints clean the air
Companies like Steelcase Solutions lease office furniture
Herman Miller office chairs are designed for disassembly. (Although spares are very expensive at present.)
Increasingly, standards require that air and water leaving industrial plants are cleaner than when they went in.
Have a look at the Wuhan Energy Flower - amazing building. 
The book Cradle to Cradle broke new ground. Products can now be cradle-to-cradle certified. Why are we not using (more) geothermal energy? We can 3-D print plastic PV panels or even stem cells.
After all those ideas I just wanted to go home!

Day 3 - 09.00 in Bradford and 16.00 in Hong Kong. Paul Clarke addressed us across the ether on “Pop-Up Farm: engaging schools, communities, and business in the transformation of the urban mind.” Paul started by setting the scene. The fact that 99% of all food for Hong Kong is imported. That the utility of all our institutions is under strain. That we have only a 20-25 year window to change from industrial to ecological lifestyles. That Beijing is nearly paralysed by smog while China commissions seven new coal-fired power stations every month. Business as usual is leading us on track not for 2°C increase by the end of the century but 6°C. If we carry on like this, 30% of all mammals will be extinct by 2030. We are facing “The Great Die-Out”, the most significant extinction since the age of the dinosaurs. Only 3% of the world’s water is potable. Food and agriculture depend on fossil fuel. Soils are being compacted and nature is being stifled. Much top soil is now being washed irretrievably away. This can only lead to food insecurity and social unrest.
And now the good news. Coffee Club is taking the message, the promise of a different future, into schools. Quality coffee is supplied to schools and sold on at a profit to parents with profits used to establish eco projects.  Students analyse the supply chain. The links right back to the farm can be accessed via a QR code on every packet.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Earth is an online game from the Pop-Up Foundation. It starts with a doomsday scenario. Will that motivate students or just depress them? Either way, Paul firmly believes that education must change. “Education is in the Dark Ages. It’s training for a world that no longer exists.”

“Bootcamp on the Circular Economy.” Yes, it’s Ken Webster again! He started off with an illustration of key trends - population, energy and all the rest, all trending towards infinity and demonstrating the impossibility of business as usual.  This session re-presented a number of recurring themes and reinforced them by putting a different spin on them. Recycling  legitimises the linear economy. It’s only a half-way house, postponing the trip to the tip for resources. Renting or leasing is already the business model for many major industrial goods such as truck tyres or aero engines. Ebay is almost a rental system - buy it, use it, put it back on ebay. Don’t recycle, up-cycle. (Ken couldn’t immediately think of an example of this, but I’m sure there is one.) At the very least, keep things in the production loop and minimise waste of every kind. A problem with recycling is that if it's super successful it suppresses demand. Our economy and our banking system both depend on growth. Infinite growth is impossible in a linear economy. The circular economy is the only answer. We can have continuing growth as long as we can re-use, remanufacture and recycle our resources.

The final session I attended was the “Circular Economy in the Classroom” drop-in session. A very professional presentation by teachers from Skipton Girls’ High School and Archbishop Holgate’s School in York showed just how much can be done to teach the circular economy and how enthusiastic the pupils are. Like the whole of the conference, it demonstrated that while the future reality could be doom and gloom, there is so much enthusiasm and so many ideas out there.

Now to convince business and the policy-makers!

This has been a brief overview of what I gained from the Re-thinking Progress conference. Thanks to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the invitation, and for making it all possible.

Here are links and books referred to by the various speakers:

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation 

3-D Printing

So you think you know about the circular economy?
Re-inventing Fire - Amory Lovins
The Second Machine Age -Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

Designing Products for a Circular Economy
Cradle to Cradle - Braungart and McDonough

Ellen MacArthur - Disruptive Innovation Festiva;

Short Talks - these were professionally video-ed and will presumable be available on the EMF website in due course.

Role of the Consumer
Nudge - Richard Thaler
Stark - Ben Elton
Systems Thinking
The Gardens of Democracy - Hanauer and Liu
Cultural Genocide - Lawrence Davidson
Circular Economy - why it makes business sense.

Teaching circular economy in a global context
Jef Staes: Do diplomas kill passion and talent? 

Pop-up Farm
NASA - temperature change (there are many other videos from NASA on the theme)
Hope in a changing climate

Circular Economy Bootcamp
Steady State Economics - Herman E Daly (and several other books by him)