Circular Economy – Newcastle Meeting Discussion (Feb 2015)

Green Thinkers reconvened for the New Year and a new meeting format to discuss the topic of the Circular Economy. Our core text for the evening was “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, but contributions for a range of different sources were also discussed. The overall view of the group of 10 was that the concept of the circular economy was of interest, and that in particular it offers a third way to approach to some of the environmental problems we face between the two opposing models of limits to growth and technical abundance and growth for progress. Whilst Cradle to Cradle covers concepts of circular and symbiotic design, for many it was the message of concern over the need to detoxify material use and product design that was a more important message. This was in contrast to some of the other sources discussed where the focus seemed to be driven more from an accountant style understanding of resource scarcity and the drive for continuing profit the core motivator for exploration of circular economy implementation.

An interesting angle was raised during the discussion that whilst the theoretical model of zero waste from circular resource use was potentially attractive, without waste being produced, the fundamental economic viability of waste recycling and disposal for materials at end of life may be adversely affected. This led to consideration of example cases where some business have now tweaked production process to generate certain types and grades of waste to satisfy waste recycler requirements, but that the value of this can be that new markets for re-use materials can be opened which were previously uneconomic.

Some difference of opinions was expressed by the group over the issue of whether one can read Cradle to Cradle’s message from 2005 and feel that little or no progress has been made, compared to those who felt that in key areas, real change was present. In particular there was some acceptance that perhaps the US-centric view of Cradle to Cradle failed to accommodate some of the good regulatory progress made in the EU on matters such as chemical controls (REACH Regulations), growth in renewables capacity, recycling and end of life design regulatory drivers and the emerging circular economy directive proposals. It was further noted that, at least as far as Europe was concerned, it was very true that regulation was driving a large amount of change in business that would perhaps not otherwise be present, such as the American perspective that McDonough and Braungart were writing from.

After the mid session break, thoughts turned to the degree to which it was correct to view circular economy models as mimicking nature. It was felt that perhaps such a view was romanticising some elements of natural systems, but a key point was that such natural systems tend towards having stop points within them, but that humans had effectively broken free of the natural stops upon them as a species. Whereas natural systems have time to adapt and evolve to changing situations in our current crisis we have very little time to make radical adaptations. Whether a nature mimicking model can do enough to achieve the turnaround necessary was questioned.

As the discussion drew to a close, thoughts turned back to the primacy of design, and the key role that designers have to design in optimal solutions from the outset. It was felt that if governments seek a goal of diversion from landfill, this may miss the opportunity to develop genuinely circular raw material to waste to feedstock loops as part of a new model of design and re-use that Cradle to Cradle aimed to highlight.

The wide ranging discussion was enjoyed by everyone who attended, with the extended chance to explore the topic in detail giving a thoroughly interesting and lively debate.

By Richard Clarke

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