The Circular Economy is the new big thing where idealistic environmental thinking meets hard-nosed capitalism. Its all things to all people, except those businesses who’s profits rely on disposable products. But is it really any different from existing messages about the three ‘Rs’ – Reduce/Reuse/Recycle ? Does it mean fundamental change ? Change by us at home or by them up there ? Or is it just common sense rebranded ?
Up there at the government level there are two main advocates of the Circular Economy, the first is the EU (but that whole thing is getting boring, so lets not talk about them), the other is The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
You may remember Ellen MacArthur (now Dame Ellen) as the round-the-world yachtswoman who sailed into the record books by clocking the fastest ever solo circumnavigation. Unlike many sportspeople she resisted the call of the bush tucker trial and a spell in celebrity prison, sharing accomodation with certified narcasists, and instead set up a charitable foundation to help persuade governments and business rethink their use of raw materials.
Seven years on from its launch Dame Ellen has been very sucessful in using her hard won platform and these days her Foundation is sponsored by corporate heavyweights like Google, Unilever, Danone, Nike, Philips and Renault. Invited to speak to world leaders at high profile events and able to produce slick and convincing evidence that change in raw material supply chains (and plastics in particular) is needed, the Foundation is starting to have an impact on corporate and government thought, and its doing great things in education too, but it does very little to actually physically implement ideas. It is very much a think-tank and lobbyist, not a problem solver. In government speak it is ‘non-prescriptive’. It doesn’t tell you how to solve your everyday problems.
Fishy Filaments agrees wholeheartedly with the vast majority of the foundation’s analysis of the issues around raw materials supply chains, but real change happens at home by individuals exerting their own decision-making capacity, spending their own time and money doing things that work within their own lifestyles and ideas.
So did we used to call The Circular Economy ‘thrift’ and ‘common sense’? Is it as simple as that ?
Well, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
Up there, where the atmosphere is rarified and the power flows, the answer is ‘No’. What the Foundation and others are asking for is actually quite difficult and requires that laws change, that millions of everyday products are redesigned and that raw materials are fundmentally revalued.
Down here, where recycling boxes dribble week-old dregs on the carpet and foxes split your bin bags, the answer is most assuredly ‘Yes’. Because it has to be. Because change happens at home, not on high.
And because what is it that makes sense about sending young men and women into harms way to drill for oil, mine for metals or catch fish, then to throw away the products of their labours (and sometimes their lives) without wringing the maximum possible value out of those raw materials and products. Once-only use is not just environmentally irresponsible, it is asking working people to destroy their bodies and their home-lives for the sake of a pretty-looking strawberry.
Many plastics are almost indestructable. It is common sense to recycle them, just the same as we do with glass. We hear about North Sea oil running out, but we encourage disposal of plastics made from it in landfill. The proportion of all crude oil used for plastics is set to rise to 20% within half a lifetime. We make it difficult for industries to recycle instead of encoraging the design of products to use recycled materials. We (rightly) ask industries to meet ever higher social and environmental standards but then, in our everyday lives, stand in their way of meeting those challenges.
In the last few decades British designers and engineers have led the world in providing creative solutions to challenges of all shapes and sizes. Whole national economies have looked at British design with envy and tempted individuals away to build new cars, factories and lines of electronics. Whether its Bayliss and his radio, Dyson and his vacuum cleaners, or Gravity-light and their gravity-driven mini generator, British engineers can and do solve problems.
The problem we have in Britain is that, unlike the Americans, we don’t believe in our engineers at a personal level. We don’t back them unless they have a government stamp of approval. In the USA groups of doctors and lawyers and business-leaders club together to back good ideas from their communities that aren’t yet at the stage going to market. Philanthropists who believe in spreading their wealth to causes they believe in do so without hesitation, and both groups get tax breaks for doing it.
But the world has changed, is changing. What was once top-down is now bottom-up. Through crowdfunding now anybody can be part of providing solutions.
On a personal level I absolutely love that I can back ideas with potential. I’ve even gone door-to-door for one campaigning for free.
It annoys me that as an individual ‘innovator’ (I’m not supposed to call myself an inventor apparently), I’m excluded from qualifying for government funding because I don’t have thousands of pounds in the bank that I can set aside as so-called ‘match funding’. Unlike the government I can’t issue bonds to help me eat or pay my rent, instead I work pretty much hand to mouth to fund my ideas and solve the problems that I see. So when I’m asked to apply for match funding (and I am asked to quite regularly) I have to decline the invitation to go into debt.
Patently the Circular Economy is a really good idea that obviously speaks the kind of language that corporates and governments can hear, and are hearing, but without the other side of the coin; the down-and-dirty problem solvers, the grubby fingered mechanics and slightly absent-minded ideas people, it means very little.
Muck still needs shifting. Bills still need paying.
And Fishy Filaments holds on to the common sense idea that ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass’.