Circular Economy or Web of Life?
As a nature lover, I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Packham’s BBC series The Secrets of the Living Planet. Having been on our screens in my youth, Packham has suddenly burst back from the wilderness to become the putative successor to the legend that is David Attenborough. But being a scientist, Packham has brought his on flavour to his shows and the theme behind ‘Secrets’ is the interconnectiveness of life on earth. The last episode focussed on wetlands and seas and showed how the lowly Apple Snail is key to the extraordinary wildlife of the Brazilian Pantanal and how lowly crabs create the correct conditions in the mangroves of the Ganges delta to allow trees, deer and, in turn, the mighty tiger to survive.
This got me thinking about one of the key concepts of sustainability – the circular economy. Traditionally humans have adoped a linear ‘take, make, use, waste’ approach to our natural resources and this was fine while consumption was low and those natural resources were such that nature could do our reprocessing for us – ie we fitted into existing eco-systems. Modern society however consumes so much material – and of so many ‘unnatural’ types – that our eco-systems cannot cope with the linear economy, so we need to look at our economy as an eco-system in itself and make sure resources are recovered and reused in a circular manner.
While circular economy is a nice, simple, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin description, we should bear in mind that, as with nature, the reality will be much more complex than simple product recycling at the end of life. By-products and waste heat are created at every stage of product lifecycles and all of these should be seen, and used, as resources as well. This creates a complex set of interrelations – more of a web of life than simple loops. And, as with nature, that is a good thing – a diverse eco-systems of product flows will make the whole much more robust and allow it to evolve with society.
When watching Chris Packham’s boyish enthusiasm at the complexities of natural eco-systems, it reminds me of my own enthusiasm when working for years on industrial symbiosis projects – matchmaking between producers of ‘waste’ and those who can put that material to good use. Not much gets me more excited than a clever zero waste cluster – I should get out more!