Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Transitioning to a circular economy

At the last energy group meeting the topic was the circular economy and how we can help to make it happen. Just as it is a challenge to achieve economic growth without using more energy, it is a challenge to do so without using more materials. However, given that we only have one finite planet we cannot sustainably use more and more materials.

I volunteered to research the subject ahead of the meeting and you can read my full report, including points made during the discussion, on my website here. Here are some interesting facts and some of the advice about helping the circular economy happen.

Fact 1: EU regulations require car manufacturers to recycle 85% of the materials in cars that have come to the end of their life. In the UK we usually do this by bashing the car into small pieces and sorting the bits. In Poland they employ people to take the cars apart by hand.

Fact 2:  In Canada there is a company called The Beer Store that reuses all its bottles and packaging.  They run a deposit scheme to encourage people to bring back the packaging back. Bottles are reused 12-15 times and 97.7% of their bottles are returned. Many other countries also have a deposit scheme but the returned bottles are recycled rather than reused. The main aim is to reduce litter.

Fact 3: Composite stuff is much harder to recycle than stuff made of one material. For example disposable coffee cups are often made of cardboard with a plastic liner. There is one company in the UK called SimplyCups that can take these apart and recycle the bits.

Fact 4: In the linear economy manufacturers get money by selling us stuff and they have little to gain by making it last a long time. From their point of view, the sooner it breaks the sooner we need a new one. Also it doesn't benefit the manufacturers if stuff is easy to repair. However, if we were to rent stuff then the supply company gets lots of benefit from making stuff last a long time and being easy to repair. Renting changes the whole business model in a way that encourages less material use.

Here are some things we can do to encourage the circular economy to become more mainstream.

  • When buying stuff, consider buying second hand. 
  •  When you have stuff you do not need, consider selling it or giving it to a charity shop. 
  • If your stuff needs mending, consider taking it to a professional repair service. 
  • If you are a designer consider ease of recycling as part of your design 
  • Campaign for returnable bottles with deposits, like in Denmark, Germany and Canada 
  • The next time you need to replace an appliance, consider renting instead.
CCF has some advice about this as well - and a challenge for you - on their Circular Cambridge campaign website.

Our next meeting will be about the energy used to make things - embodied energy. It is easy enough to find out how much energy you use when you operate your car, computer, house, kettle or whatever - but how much energy was used to make them? 

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