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17 February 2021

Four Concepts to Help Understand the Circular Economy

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“Take, make, waste” has to end. This is the conclusion that several international organizations like the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the European Commission seem to have reached. They include the evolution toward a circular economy as one of the key components of achieving a sustainable future. 

These three verbs refer to the representative phases in the linear economic model in which the world has largely been immersed so far: taking resources, making products and discarding nearly everything after consumption. The planet cannot endure this model much longer, as natural resources will eventually run out. The alternative is the move from a linear to a circular model, which is based on reusing all objects as much as possible, repairing them when they have imperfections and as a last resort, recycling them to turn them into a raw material once again, or a source of energy.

The circular economy concept has been around since the 1970s through different authors and schools of thought, although it is now – well into the 21st century – when it seems to be on everyone’s lips. Below we present some of the schools of thought and concepts on which it is based. 

Industrial ecology

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation considers industrial ecology one of the most influential schools of thought in the formation of the circulation economy. This way of thinking proposes contributing to sustainable development by creating closed circuits of raw materials in order to minimize waste as much as possible. 

Industrial ecology theorists calculated the environmental impact that could occur in the following decades if all citizens of the world lived with the living standards of industrialized western countries.  The result was that there would not be enough natural resources for this, showing how outdated the system is and the need to rethink forms of consumption. This theory suggests conceiving the industrial system as an ecosystem that must consume raw materials and energy at the same pace at which the biosphere can replace them.   


Another major source of inspiration for the circular economy is the idea of biomimicry or biomimetics. According to the journal Nature’s definition, biomimicry is an interdisciplinary field in which the principles of engineering, chemistry and biology are applied to the synthesis of materials, systems or machines with functions that replicate biological processes. In other words, it studies how human beings can use science to solve problems using the way nature solves them as inspiration. 

The hair of the polar bear is an example of inspiration for scientists, thanks to the fact that it has a structure that allows air to be trapped inside, which serves as thermal insulation. Credit: AWeith

Keeping in mind that humans are the only beings that produce waste, it makes sense to look to nature for the inspiration to find solutions to transform production processes from linear to circular. This lesson from nature has given rise to materials like biodegradable plastic, for example.

Cradle to cradle

Another concept that underpins the circular economy is “crade to cradle”, which was coined in the 1970s by the Swiss architect Walter R. Stahel. It refers to the need to use materials that are durable over time and that do not end up discarded when they are no longer in use, but instead can be completely reused for something new once the function for which they were designed has ended. 

Popularized years later, the term advocates for the need to reconsider product design so that reuse is possible. The optimization of products on the market should start with the optimization of the parts or materials used to make them. 

Technical and biological cycles

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation distinguishes between two types of cycles that should exist in the circular economy – biological and technical – based on the type of material that they regenerate, living or non-living.  

In biological cycles, food and other biological materials like cotton or wood, should be designed to return to the system through compost or anaerobic digestion processes. Meanwhile, technical cycles would recover materials and parts through repair, remanufacturing or recycling, as a last resort. 

Sara González for OpenMind

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