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23 October 2017

The Circular Economy in ONE word...

circular economy...DEMAND.

I grow ever more frustrated with Sustainability pronouncements on Twitter which have more in common with a sappy old 'inspirational' Athena poster than hard economics. Recently I challenged a tweet which said that the 'circular economy' was being held back by a lack of public awareness. I couldn't disagree more (the tweet and tweeter have since disappeared, strangely).

Joe/Jo Public generally wants to know "what should I put in each bin?" They get frustrated that they can't recycle, say, expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging. This is technologically possible, but there's little or no demand so there is no point in collecting it. Once you create demand, the supply chains, technology and awareness will all mature rapidly and the stickers on recycling bins will change to say they can take EPS.

A great example of how demand works is how M&S went about building a supply chain for high-grade recycled polyester. They increased demand for low grade polyester fibre for bulk uses such as stuffing cushions. This brought economies of scale to the shared elements of the supply chain and helped bring the cost of high-grade fibres down to a reasonable level, so recycled fabrics became feasible. As they ramp up the number of products made from high-grade material, that unit cost will drop further and quality will improve.

You can't push material through a circular economy, you have to pull it through. That must be the fundamental principle for all policy, design and awareness developments.

 

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19 July 2017

Game of Thrones and the Sustainability Vision Thing

Great excitement chez Kane on Monday as, as soon as the junior members of the household were safely asleep, we could head back to Westeros and caught up with Arya, Jon Snow, Cersei and the rest of the huge, disparate but now converging cast of characters that populate the Game of Thrones universe. I'm not going to give anything away – one innocent click on Monday spoilt the opening for me, thank you very much Independent – but it did make me think about some of the Sustainability debates I've been having recently.

There's a strong fan theory that the overall story – tribes of people fighting to the death over the smallest of short term political gains while ignoring the existential threat of the White Walkers – is an analogy for our own short termism in the face of the threat of climate change. And of course, as the lengthy winter starts in Westeros, we can see the implications: food shortages, mass migration of threatened peoples etc, etc. And yet most of the characters are caught up in their own web of lust, hatred, envy, power and vengeance and pay little regard to the big threat.

So far, so good.

But I am still amazed at those who believe that the solution to climate change is to regress to some kind of pre-industrial state. Going 'plastic-free' seems to be the new 'gluten-free', seen as somehow inherently good despite a complete lack of evidence to back the idea up (the number of people who think they are gluten intolerant is many times the number who actually are). The Guardian ran a plastic-free piece on Tuesday, memorably including a 'pig hair toothbrush'. Nice. Read the rest of this entry »

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17 July 2017

Plastic isn't evil

Six pack rings

Every morning I walk up the hill to the newsagent for the morning papers and milk for breakfast. I try to pick up at least one piece of litter en route, just a tiny token effort towards keeping the neighbourhood and the environment clean. As I'm using my bare hands, I am rather selective about what I choose to pick, but I always go for six pack rings (usually four pack, but, hey...) as they are most likely to end up in our local river or green areas and strangle wildlife.

I've seen quite a few groups urging people to go 'plastic free' and individuals pledge to try to go 'plastic free' for a set period of time – by buying loose veg and drinks in glass bottles etc. We see beaches covered in litter and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a stain on the history of humanity. The message is clear – plastic is evil and we should get rid of it.

But, hold on just one darn minute.

OK, think about this. Glass bottles mean greater weight, means more carbon emissions in the supply chain. Loose veg means shorter shelf life, means more food waste, leading to more carbon and more land use to support the same population. If we went further in phasing out plastics, cars and aeroplanes would be heavier, less fuel efficient, and have shorter life spans. The very characteristics that make plastics an environmental problem – low density and durability – are those which make them part of the solution.

I think of plastic waste like the old gardeners' definition of a weed – a plant in the wrong place. As we shift to a circular economy, collection and recycling of plastics will be incentivised, meaning that litter will fall. That's not just wishful thinking – the UK's plastic bag tax incentivised the reuse of plastic bags, including heavier 'bags for life', and beach litter quickly halved. In other words, it's not plastic that's the problem, it's how we use it.

 

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26 June 2017

Heinz need to ketchup on customer engagement

HZK_3D_38oz-Ketchup-smallLast week I was chatting with a local authority recycling officer, checking exactly what I could put in my recycling bin (and if I'm not 100% sure...). We got on to the Lucozade Sport problem, then he mentioned his bugbear was Heinz, who, he said, don't even label their plastic bottles with recycling codes.

So, in an idle moment I thought I'd try the power of social media and tweeted to Heinz UK to ask why not. They promptly and politely replied that the bottles do have recycling codes, but they're hidden under the cap. I checked and they were right.

But.

But, but, but.

What's the point of hiding away your code? Everybody else puts it on the bottom of the bottle, and those members of the public, like me, who know that code 1 or 2 on a bottle means it can be recycled, will look for it there. Recycling plant operatives will certainly look for it there. And if a guy with decades of experience in household recycling doesn't know where it is, what chance do the rest of us have?

One of my Green Jujitsu principles is that Sustainability information must be placed where people expect to find the information they need. I often quote the example of a client who labelled all the machines in their production lines which should be switched off when idle, but didn't include any guidance in the formal manufacturing instructions which are held as gospel by operatives and their line management. The labels got ignored because, even though they were in plain sight, the information wasn't in the right place.

I've asked Heinz why the stamp isn't on the bottom of the bottle, but they haven't got back to me yet.

 

 

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19 May 2017

Pringles and Lucozade still don't get it.

prod_img-2927296_pringles_original_190g_enI love it when serious Sustainability issues hit the mainstream and yesterday's public shaming of Pringles and Lucozade Sport for difficult-to-recycle packaging across mainstream media channels really hit the button. What brought my initial excitement down was the begrudging response from the companies (quoted from The Guardian):

A Pringles spokesman said: “We take our responsibilities to the planet we all share seriously and are continuously working to improve our environmental performance. All parts of a Pringles can act as a barrier to protect the chips from environmental contamination and to keep them fresh. The freshness of our chips means a longer shelf life, which minimises food waste.”

This is indeed true, but there is an implicit 'or' in there (I don't like 'or's, they suck). Many manufacturers produce packaging which protects against food wastage AND are easy to recycle. Try harder!

Lucozade said it recognised its environmental responsibilities and had reduced its use of plastic in bottles by 540 tonnes over the last year. A spokesman added: “We welcome any technological breakthroughs that support this ambition.”

Two problems here. First, how significant is 540 tonnes? How many tonnes of Lucozade Sport bottles are produced every year? Without that context, this statement is greenwash.

But it's the final quote that really bothers me – the plastic sleeve which renders the bottle hard to recycle is a design choice by Lucozade, it is not an inherent property of the bottle. It is Lucozade's social responsibility to design that problem out, not anybody else's as implied by the quote. Get your finger out!

Hopefully both these defences are just that and the campaign will have both companies' (and others') product designers working overtime to square these circles. I'm always optimistic...

 

 

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12 May 2017

Zero Hazardous Waste?

waste minimisation recycling workshops

I had a meeting earlier with a Sustainability Manager earlier this week who is busy drafting a Sustainability Strategy for his company. His waste goal was "zero non-hazardous waste" and I mused that in the last ten years such a once-impossible target has become pretty much standard – which is a brilliant achievement by the Sustainability community.

But what about hazardous waste? The main reason why this is caveated out of zero waste targets is the tight regulation around such material reduces the opportunities for action. In sectors such as healthcare where human tissue or blood is involved, there isn't much room for manoeuvre, but for others my (blasphemous) alternative to the waste hierarchy still applies:

Design it out or find a good use for it.

The circular economy mindset sees the hazardous nature of a material as an opportunity rather than a problem. So if you have a highly alkaline 'waste' material, you need to investigate uses for alkalis, preferably those which result in pH neutral materials.

The design process offers exciting opportunities for innovation. In one of my favourite examples, Camira found that using a mixture of wool and bast fibres (e.g. sisal) led to a naturally flame retardant fabric, eliminating the need for hazardous chemicals and the resulting waste.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade – I expect to see 'zero waste' applying to all waste, not just the benign stuff. After all it was just a few years ago that people kept telling me that zero non-hazardous waste was physically impossible.

 

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25 January 2017

Zero waste requires new thinking, not the same old, same old

wasted

Yesterday I downloaded the Carbon Trust's Zero Waste guide. As most of the content could have been written a decade ago, it was, frankly, a waste of electrons. Where was the aspiration, the innovation, the inspiration? We get a nod to the circular economy and design, but no more detail. Instead we get the 3Rs and talking to waste management contractors.

If you want zero waste, paradoxically you've got to stop thinking about waste. You've got to think about preventing resources being wasted instead (my mantra is "waste is a verb, not a noun"). You've got to think about loops, not linear processes.

Once you've changed your mindset, you've got to find quality uses for every stream of material or design it out of your system. You need to talk to suppliers and customers about closed loop business models and innovations. You've got to talk to other organisations who may be able to use unwanted material as a raw material. You, and plenty of other people, have got to do things radically differently.

We cannot face a challenge like zero waste with a linear waste minimisation mindset, it's like taking a pea shooter to a war zone. As Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

 

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23 January 2017

A Green Industrial Strategy for the UK? Ish.

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.

So today, we get an insight on progress as the Government publishes the 10 pillars of its Industrial Strategy. And one of the pillars is rather encouraging:

Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.

Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.

So far, so good, but what's not there?

The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.

The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...

 

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23 November 2016

Sustainability and the Laws of Thermodynamics: A Primer

solar farm

Last week somebody responded to the edition of Ask Gareth on zero waste by saying zero waste was thermodynamically impossible. My heart soared as I love a bit of thermo, and a bit of a debate, so I thought I'd expand a little on Sustainability and thermodynamics, and explain why this comment is incorrect.

Way back in 1998 when I was a newbie researcher exploring Sustainability as a concept, I was wading through a mountain of heartfelt waffle on the subject when I stumbled on an explanation in terms of thermodynamics. It made complete sense to me and something clicked. When I explained this to my project supervisors, one of them said thermodynamics was for chemical reactions, not for the whole planet. I persisted as I like nice neat explanations for big complex situations and I won him over. To this day I tend to fall back on the laws of thermo to help me spot perpetual motion machines and other blind alleys, and remind me of the big Sustainability picture.

There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, and a gazillion definitions of each, but for our purposes we need the first and second Laws which can be expressed simply as:

First Law: energy and material can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.

Second Law: the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time.

As entropy is a measure of disorder (read: pollution, dissipated resources), the two are often interpreted as us being stuffed in the long term – inevitably the world will grind to a halt. This is the interpretation of zero-waste-impossible guy. But the crucial bit is the 'isolated' caveat – the earth is not isolated, rather it receives huge amounts of external energy in the form of solar insolation and gravitational pulls.

Earth's natural systems have been pretty sustainable for the last billion years as they follow two important principles to comply with those two laws:

1. there is no waste, all materials and nutrients are endlessly recycled;

2. those cycles and everything else, are powered by those external energy sources, most notably via photosynthesis.

Translating these into industrial parlance and you get the circular, zero waste economy and the renewable energy industry as models for a sustainable economy.

Any questions?

 

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9 November 2016

Is zero waste really possible?


The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers whether Zero Waste is truly possible. Having working for many years in this particular field, I give the lowdown on zero waste and its true importance.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions here.

 

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4 November 2016

From whale to wheel: brilliant example of biomimicry

I love biomimicry – the science/art of looking to nature to solve some of our design problems – and I love cycling, so the revolutionary (ha ha!) new aero wheels from Zipp hit both buttons. Zipp have taken inspiration from the way whales maintain speed and manoeuvrability that belies their sheer size and applied it to the humble cycle wheel with quite remarkable results.

Probably the most telling line in the video is "if you look to nature, most of these complex problems have already been solved." And this is true – the humble leaf is twice as efficient at converting a photon of light into useable energy than a standard solar panel. If the various boffins trying to emulate the leaf are successful, then we get twice as much energy out of each solar panel.

At a macro-level, the circular economy is simply copying the way nutrients are endlessly cycled within nature to produce a sustainable system. Those natural cycles are driven by solar energy and don't accumulate toxins. So there you have a template for a sustainable economy.

The downside of those Zipp wheels is the cost – almost three times the price of my road bike. So if they want to send me a pair to try out...

 

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27 October 2016

All the leaves are falling...

Colorful autumn leaves, top view.

Half term means it's half-working, half-child-caring here at Terra Infirma Towers, although I did sneak off for a 47-mile cycle this morning. And it was glorious, with the late-ish autumn giving a spectacular display of colour across the rolling hills and river valleys of Northumberland and the crunch of leaves and fruit under my wheels.

I always find autumn a time of reflection – whether about life, working practice or Sustainability philosophy. Those leaves falling, becoming food for a variety of microfauna whose own 'waste' feeds plants and so on, is the basic model of the circular economy. That cycle, like every other natural cycle, is powered by solar energy, which gives us another basic principle for Sustainability. And it's beautiful – a much neglected element in Sustainability where sheer pleasure is often neglected.

 

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27 May 2016

Pedant's Corner: Circular Economy vs Servicisation

Circular economy vs servicisation

Twice in the last week or so, I've heard people conflate two quite distinct concepts – the circular economy and servicisation/product-service system. This has riled my inner pedant no end, so I feel obliged to set out the difference between the two:

  • Circular economy – all materials flow in closed loops just like the closed loops in nature.
  • Servicisation – provide your customers with the service they desire (eg the ability to copy documents) rather than the standard product (eg a photocopier).

The confusion arises as there is some overlap between the two concepts (see my nifty Venn diagram). Eg in chemical management systems (CMS), solvent services typically recover and recycle those solvents. However in other CMSs, materials are not recovered, eg when companies provide a coating service, the coating stays with the product and is not necessarily recovered. This is why I've placed the double headed arrow above – whether a service is also part of the circular economy depends on the design of the service.

But my main point is that if you artificially narrow the two concepts down to the overlap in our Venn diagram, you're missing out on the majority of both. Schoolboy error.

 

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9 May 2016

Have we run out of Sustainability ideas? Probably a good thing.

world brainAbout five years ago, there seemed to be a new sustainability concept coming over the horizon every 5 minutes: the circular economy, creating shared value, mindful sustainability, my own green jujitsu and the doomed-by-its-own-name endosymbiotic thrivability – everytime you clicked on a green business website, another idea leapt out at you. These neologisms were on top of already bulging toolbox of existing ideas including natural capitalism, cradle-to-cradle, bethinking the natural step, one planet living, factor 4/10/100 etc, etc.

Suddenly all of this blue-sky thinking seems to have died away, replaced by practical efforts to take Sustainability forward at scale. I'd argue this is a sign of maturity with the Sustainability baton being handed over from the thinkers to the doers.

We now know what we have to do, the challenge is doing it.

 

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18 November 2015

Cast off the recycling blinkers!

blinkers

Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference, which believe it or not is one of the very few events I attend as a punter (all those commercial conference promoters are wasting their time). Why? Because the speakers are uniformly great and there's always plenty of food for thought.

However, the focus of the 5 speakers was almost entirely on the supply side of recyclates. So I stuck up my hand in the Q&A and asked should we not focus on the demand side - after all in a circular economy, demand will have more influence over supply than vice-versa. The speakers agreed and gave some really good ideas, such as dropping recycling targets altogether and shifting them into producer responsibility legislation to drive the use of secondary materials.

Great, but why aren't we talking about this more? Well, because we still largely see recycling as a way of keeping material out of landfill rather than as a way of creating raw materials. For a circular economy, we've got to cast off those blinkers and see the bigger picture. Basic economics.

There were other, positive, examples at the conference where casting off a narrow focus produced great results. For example, Andrew Gadd of Link2Energy pointed out that while it was standard practice to turn Energy from Waste ash into building blocks, but nobody was extracting the precious metals therein first. So we're locking valuable material up in our walls. Why? Because we are obsessed with quantity over quality which encourages down-cycling (and ultimately impacts on quantity). Recovering those metals first not only boosts the economics of the recycling process, it also removes the need for all the environmentally destructive mining of those metals in the first place.

And such recovery is often cheaper than mining – yesterday the press was reporting that a Chinese municipality has found that its sewage sludge ash has 50-100 times the concentration of gold that you get in the most productive Chinese gold mine. Where there's muck, there's brass.

As we walked to lunch, another delegate was musing on why we don't do this stuff. It's the blinkers we decided, we need to cast them off and think differently about the material we currently call 'waste'.

 

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18 September 2015

Goldflush!

plan b

Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.

In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.

I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...

 

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9 September 2015

The Circular Economy Rules

In the latest edition of Ask Gareth, I consider the Circular Economy concept and propose some rules of thumb for success.

We are always after fresh questions for Ask Gareth. If you have one, please check out the past editions in case it has already been covered, and, if not, fire it through by clicking here.

 

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22 May 2015

Circular Economics 101

circular economy

Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.

The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.

Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."

Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.

"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.

"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."

And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.

In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.

 

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29 April 2015

I am a Wasteman

I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the  Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!

It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.

But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.

You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.

If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.

 

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23 February 2015

The Circular Economy is Circular, Stupid!

journal circular economy
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.

It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:

1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;

2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;

3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.

If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below -  it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.

circular circular economy

So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.

 

 

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