Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Approaching a Circular Economy

A faddy business trend, or a sharper focus for the sustainability agenda? The notion of a circular economy lies in opposition to a linear economy (extract-make-use-dispose). It is a regenerative approach that seeks further use for items we no longer need. This means that industry needs to extract from our planet fewer resources to make new things.

The current clamp-down on single-use plastics is a good, though extreme example, with the UK government pledging to ban plastic straws and cotton-wool ear buds next year. Free-of-charge single-use plastic bags have disappeared from shops across the EU. There is still much more to do.

On Tuesday I chaired a small meeting of representatives of business and ecological groups on this subject, and the more one looks into the subject, the more complex and interconnected it all is.

Three groups of players are in this game; consumers, who want things, businesses, who satisfy those wants, and the regulator, who imposes the rules on the game. And, this being circular, the regulator is doing the bidding of the voter, who is the same person as the consumer.

As voters we want a clean planet, clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean food. Yet as consumers, we want convenience. I was talking to a producer of food packaging who said that something like a packet of sliced cheese may consist of ten or more components; the plastic packet itself, a pull-off seal made from a different type of plastic, held to the packet with a special glue; the paper label on that pull-off seal with the product information printed in different inks - the label being attached with a different form of glue, waterproof foil over the paper, sheets of thin plastic separating the cheese slices. The resulting package is impossible to recycle and is fit only for incineration.

We may find (as consumers) that our lives become more beset by inconvenience as we (as voters) tell our regulators to clamp down on the plastics that are despoiling our oceans and our land. It may be a return to older days. Take the cheese, for example. I've swapped my regular brand of Roquefort cheese, packaged in a plastic tray with a plastic foil seal and further plastic inside for cheese cut from the round, with aluminium foil on the outside, and simply shrink-wrapped in clingfilm. To be honest, this works out cheaper (around 63zł/kg compared to 85zł/kg for the packet cheese). But I can only guess the environmental impact of the foil/clingfilm packaging to be much lower than the plastic packet. How is it for health though? All those phthalates and plasticisers and other chemicals are known to be no good for us, and leach into our food.

Cheese predates plastic by a few millennia, so can't we go back to storing it under porcelain in cool, dark larders? And can't we go back to buying it from the block, cut and weighed for us, and wrapped in paper?

As consumer-voters, we should take a more active interest in how our food - and indeed other products we use - is packaged and sold. Food we can't really buy less of, below a biological threshold, but other things we have more control over.

Cars - I set out my precepts regarding car ownership back in 2012:

1. Don't own a car. Go on two wheels, public transport, hire or ride-share instead.
2. If you really must own a car, buy a small car.
3. If you really must have a larger car (large family), buy an economical large car.
4. Whatever you have, drive as little as you possibly can.
5. Invest the money you have saved by following the above precepts.

The automotive industry must change; consumers will force that change. The regulator will not be far behind; a Extended Producer Responsibility Directive will force car-makers (and other manufacturers) to take final responsibility for their product - taking it away and breaking it down for recycling. This is expected within a few years.

Clothes. For the past few years, other than new suits for the office, most of my casual clothing I buy from the Children's Society charity shop on Pitshanger Lane in Ealing, jackets, shirts, trousers. Shoes I wear for a long time and then get re-soled. I am loyal to one brand, a family business around for 138 years that uses traditional materials and methods.

In the presentation at our meeting on Tuesday there was a brilliant slide (by Sarah Lazarovich), entitled the Buyerarchy of Needs.

Based on Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, this makes the point that before buying something, we should first consider the options. Note for non-North American readers - 'thrift' = 'charity shop'; neither really exist in Poland (other than the Sue Ryder Foundation shop on ul. Bagatela in Warsaw - anyone know of any others?).

We discussed the current trend for decluttering, the antidote to stuffocation. Participants in the debate were concerned that after a solid bout of decluttering, the natural tendency of consumers (bombarded as they are by the blandishments of business) is to once again fill those gaps with new stuff. STOP!

The circular economy is about much more than buying less. It is about making more use of what there is (sharing power tools, rather than each household owning a drill that's used for nine minutes in its lifetime), about recycling as much as possible. Business needs to become less short-term profit focused, trying to get people to spend money they don't really have buying things they don't really need.

So where's economic growth going to come from?


What's the outcome of that going to be?

Some of us will end up living extremely long. On a cleaner planet.

This time last year:
Ralph Vaughan-Williams - two song cycles

This time nine years ago:
Spring scenes in Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Modernist wheels

This time 11 years ago:
Mammatus clouds over Jeziorki

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