Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Circular Economy—still one of the great ideas

One of the lightening bolts of insight that staggered me as a man in his 30s was the idea that because there is no "away" the throwaway society is ultimately doomed by simple physical reality. It is quite impossible to dig up raw materials to be sent on a journey to the landfills forever. Either you run out of resources or you run out of places to store the waste, or both. The only way out of this dilemma is to make products so they can be reprocessed into new things when the time comes for the original product to be replaced.


This is one of those ideas that would require about a million times more effort, cost, and inventiveness to do than to dream up. After all, not only are most things designed and built without the slightest consideration for disposal, large numbers of products are designed to be disposed of after only one use. Designer junk, if you please. I once gave a talk at 3M, a company that has made their primary mission the production of designer junk. I chose to talk about design for disassembly, and other proposed schemes to create a less wasteful world. The assembled 3M folks were not amused. Needless to say, I wasn't asked back.

The idea of the circular industrial society is still one of the better notions to have crossed my mind so I included it in Elegant Technology. It can be found in Chapter Ten: Do Producers Have a Plan? Of course, no one ever reads a book to Chapter Ten so I might as well have never written it at all. But when I saw someone discussing this idea the other day under the title The Circular Economy That Could Save Countries Thousands, Reduce Waste (reprinted below) it made my heart glad. But first, I have decided to reproduce the section from my Chapter Ten called Closing the Loop. I hope that you readers will understand why this was the idea that made me believe a sustainable world was possible. I also hope no one minds that this was first written in 1985.

Closing the Loop

If industrial design has one great fault, it is linearity. Industrial processes are begun in the mines and end in the junkyard. This earth to earth movement encompasses a whole host of varied steps that have direction as its common denominator. A modern automobile contains as many as 20,000 individual parts. Each of these parts is the product of many separate manufacturing steps. To make a simple part like a piston, for instance, bauxite must be mined and processed into aluminum, the aluminum must be correctly alloyed and either cast or forged into an approximate shape, and the final shape determined by machine tools.

Pistons may be very simple but they have required the expertise of mining engineers, mining equipment designers and manufacturers, shippers and shipbuilders, metallurgists, smelters, machinists and machine tool designers, in addition to the automotive designers. According to Marx, all these people have been adding to the value of the original material of bauxite by adding their labor. When the piston has reached the end of its useful life and is discarded, the reality is that these people have been engaged in the process of converting precious natural resources into garbage. This is not to denigrate the piston while it is fulfilling its design function. The fault lies not with the piston or the people who made it, but with the one-way path to its final disposition.

Humans throw things away because they do not know what else to do with items that no longer fulfill their design function. Aluminum in the form of a worn-out piston has the advantage of being more valuable than the bauxite because the processing necessary for its conversion has already taken place.

Yet, worn-out pistons are not considered valuable because the resource is too scattered and almost inextricably entwined with other end products of technology. To mine aluminum as pistons requires that engines must be disassembled. Thousand of disassemblies would be required to obtain the aluminum contained in one big scoop of high-quality bauxite. Even the recovered pistons would not represent a supply of pure aluminum. Alloying, the process of introducing minute quantities of impurities to alter the working characteristics of the basic metal, is not easily reversible. It is much easier to introduce exact quantities of impurities than to remove them, especially if the nature and quantity of the alloying impurity is unknown.

The second law of thermodynamics states that energy always moves from a more organized to a less organized state. The flame from natural gas (methane) burns hot enough for industrial processes. This flame is used to heat homes, an easy requirement for such a hot flame. The heat in the home eventually escapes outdoors where in a large city an urban heat island is created. The flame is about 1500 degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding environment. The home is about 30 degrees Celsius warmer than the outdoors on a cold day. The urban heat island may be 2 degrees Celsius warmer than the countryside. From 1950 degrees to 2 degrees is a large drop in concentration of heat but since energy can be neither created or destroyed, the lower temperature difference is matched by the increased dispersion of heat to a whole urban area. These are the workings of the second law in action.

In many ways, industrialization has applied the principles of the second law of thermodynamics to everything. From the mines to the junkyards, the materials become less concentrated, more jumbled up with other materials, and spread far and wide over the face of the planet. If energy cannot be destroyed, no material can be destroyed. When an industrial product is thrown away, it only disappears from a common line of sight because in truth, there is no "away."

Linear industrialization creates problems at both ends of the industrial process. High-quality resources are being depleted at one end of the process and waste products are piling up at the other. Every industrial problem of importance is a problem either of resources or waste.

What is worse, the economic systems in industrial countries put a clock on the time it takes for a resource to become waste. Gross National Product (G.N.P.) is a measure of how fast natural resources become waste. At the very time when industrialization is confronting the problem of resource limitations and waste disposal, the economists are proposing solutions that only accelerate this process. This will only serve to make the global dilemmas so much worse.

The solution is obvious. The waste outflow must be converted into a resource asset. Sometimes this process is called recycling--a term that should be deliberately avoided because it conjures up pictures of Boy Scouts on newspaper drives. Newspaper drives may be a perfectly fine thing for children who must learn the concepts of waste management, but recycling on that scale is not a win situation from an environmental standpoint when the burning of fuel in the scout leader's station wagon is factored in. The ugly truth is that after fifteen years of recycling talk in the United States, the most effective recycling mechanism is the garage sale. Converting the wastes of industrialization into industrial assets is a problem far beyond the grasp of the Boy Scouts or garage sales.

Closing the industrial loop is a project of similar magnitude to the industrial revolution. Undoing the damage is an even bigger problem than industrialization. About one-third of the world's population has been beavering away at the creation of the industrial infrastructure of the planet for the last 150 years with occasional setbacks from warfare. A problem larger than that should mean one thing: unemployment will cease if the resource-to-waste loop is closed because there is plenty of work that needs to be done--so much work, in fact, that it boggles the imagination.

Take the problem of toxic waste. Americans are currently producing such waste at the rate of 300 pounds per person per year. The military, medicine, and the chemical industry are primary villains in this tragedy but no one is innocent. Small businesses such as dry cleaners, print shops, refinishing shops, repair garages, and photo studios are guilty of putting solvents and other hazardous chemicals in to the water system. The computer industry, supposedly a clean industry because it does not have the belching smokestacks of the steel industry, uses chemicals that are so dangerous that belching smokestacks suddenly look like a minor irritant.

Some protest that they are not a part of the problem, but even on an individual scale, it is almost impossible to be a part of an industrial society without being a part of the toxic waste problem. A homeowner paints some woodwork, cleans the brush with solvent, and rinses the solvents down the sewer with the leftover paint. A car owner removes the bugs and tar from the vehicle with a petroleum-based cleaner and hoses it down the gutter. The average homeowner has dozens of materials in the house that have no known disposal method that does not add to the problem of toxic waste. Most waste, unfortunately, ends up in the global water supply: groundwater, creeks, rivers, bays, and the oceans.

These are examples of direct contributions to the toxic waste problem. Many problems are indirectly caused. Buy a car and the paint job, the metal pickling, the rustproofing, and a host of other toxic waste problems have been incurred in the car buyer's name. A person who uses a bicycle for transportation has caused less environmental damage than a car owner, but there is still damage. Bicycle manufacture involves smelting, solvent use, rubber processing, painting, and plastic fabrication--all processes that cause toxic waste. It is literally impossible to avoid being part of the toxic waste problem and live in an industrial state.

More importantly, toxic waste problems are out of proportion to the sheer amount of waste being generated. One gallon of gasoline spilled into the water supply will render 750,000 gallons of water unfit for human consumption. The multiplier effects of toxic waste are scary. Remember, it is the water supply, one of the most basic requirements of life, that is threatened by such waste.

Proposed solutions to the toxic waste problem have been, to put it mildly, inadequate. Humans have only begun to understand the magnitude of the problem. Talk of cleaning up toxic waste dumps means digging up the barrels of waste and putting them somewhere else. The fallacy of such a solution is that not all the waste is recovered from the original site and the second site is typically no more ready to contain the waste than the first. Such clean-up efforts mean that instead of one hazardous waste site, we now have two. The real solution to the toxic waste problem has two parts. First, undo the damage already done; and, two, stop the practices that create the problem.

Undoing the damage that has already occurred is a huge subject clearly beyond the scope of this discussion. Moreover, it is futile to discuss fixes for problems of the past if the industrial state is going to proceed at an even greater pace to create more problems for the future. If humanity can stop the problem from getting any worse by creating new industrial practices, solutions will grow from this effort that will be applicable to undoing the sins of the past. more

The Circular Economy That Could Save Countries Thousands, Reduce Waste

Pixabay, 31.07.2017

Business are constantly looking for ways to cut costs and waste, as new initiatives and schemes pop up all the time. These include renting jeans and recycling paint - both methods currently being utilized by large and small businesses in a bid to create a "circular economy."

Unilever, Renault, Google and Nike are some of the companies that have begun moving towards a circular business model.

It's not just businesses that are adopting these strategies, cities are also looking at how they can drastically cut waste.

London, Amsterdam and Paris are all looking at how they can shift from a circular economy, hoping to reuse products, parts and materials which produce no waste and pollution, and use fewer new resources and energy.

A report published by London's Waste and Recycling Board (LWRB) — a group aimed at cutting waste — has found that if the city made a shift and moved to a circular economy, this could have huge benefits for the capital.

​"As London grows, it faces unprecedented pressures on its land and its resources. If we are to meet these challenges moving London to a circular economy will be vital," Shirley Rodrigues, London's deputy mayor for environment and energy, said.

"If London adopted a circular economy, the city would need less land and infrastructure to manage waste, freeing up space for housing and saving up to US$6.5 billion in infrastructure costs. This would generate 40,000 jobs and 12,500 of those would be new," Ms. Rodrigues said.

Ms. Rodrigues also said that "it is widely accepted that the circular economy has the potential to reduce" greenhouse gas emission as it uses less resources to make products in the first place, and releases less gases from the energy generation.

"This can be achieved through using resources more efficiently by extending the life of products and through the sharing of goods," Ms. Rodrigues added.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who audit tax and consulting services, is also adopting a more circular method by offering advice about this to its clients.

The company uses cooking fat from its canteens to fuel its offices; it reuses old furniture and donates the rest to charity.

Helen Jackson, head of PwC's sustainability strategy believes there is huge savings to be made.

​"There are big cost savings, there are reputational benefits from being responsible, and it is a topic which is of a lot of interest to our employees," Ms. Jackson said.

This new method is being adopted by others and according to industry experts these are just the early stages of things to come. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a registered charity with the stated aim of inspiring a generation to re-think and re-design, believes change is happening right now.

"We're still in the early stages, where you see some businesses, some cities, national governments playing around with these ideas and… starting to make moves towards a circular economy," said Ashima Sukhdev, head of governments and cities at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. more


  1. The "circular economy" concept has appeared in some sci-fi novels :-).
    But it may be too late, at least in some areas of the world, because it is not quite as optimistic "you run out of places to store the waste".
    Population studies show that the best model for a population of bacteria in a petri dish shows correctly that population dying off well before the nutrients run out, because some of the waste is toxic and will kill off the nutrients and the bacteria themselves. Note that this is different from banal "overshoot".
    This is reported also in the Wikipedia entry:
    «Exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely, however, because the medium is soon depleted of nutrients and enriched with wastes.»
    «in the face of declining nutrient concentrations and increasing waste concentrations.»

    I can't remember the name of the model, IIRC it is called Gompertz-Volterra mixed model. These are models based on integro-differential sets of equations.

    1. As someone who decided early on that science fact was more interesting than science fiction, I've kind of missed out on that world. But my take was always that no matter how good the idea of a circular society is, pulling it off would be nearly nuclear-fusion difficult. For example, if adhesives are used in manufacture, does this permanently contaminate a product so that the raw materials can never be fully recovered? Can the goal of sustainability tolerate such deterioration and if so, for how many generations? And if this deterioration cannot be tolerated, does this mean we outlaw adhesives? And good luck with that.