Bringing the Circular Economy to life – How does it really work?

In my first blogI talked about why a Circular Economy could be a solution to some of the biggest challenges we are facing today through a growing urban population increasing the pressure on our planet’s resources, whilst waste piles up. Let’s now look at what the circular economy looks like in practice.

The media have recently covered stories that at a first glance do not seem related.

Food waste has been under the spotlight, with the help of a few famous chefs. In the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall features his War on Waste campaign on BBC One. World-wide celebrity chefs grasped the opportunity behind the scene of Rio’s Olympic Games, by creating a gourmet soup kitchen, RefettoRio Gastromotivaby, cooking meals for the homeless with the Games suppliers’ unwanted and excess food.

On the technology front and for the first time in history, SpaceX, who launches satellites and space station supply missions, succeeded in landing a reusable rocket on an ocean platform after delivering an inflatable habitat into space for NASA. It promises a much less costly future for spaceflights.

Apple released Liam. Not a new iPhone, but an innovative robot with 29 arms, who takes apart returned iPhone 6 devices in only 11 seconds to recover its precious components, such as aluminium, copper, cobalt, gold and silver parts. A promising solution to tackle e-waste for the company that sold over 231m phones in 2015.

So what do these celebrity chefs, NASA and Apple have in common?

An active role in a Circular Economy. Don’t get me wrong, they might not even be aware of the Circular Economy concept. Yet each of them, for different motives, are showcasing how it works. They clearly acknowledge the opportunity that lies between volatile or increasing supply prices and ever increasing piles of waste. Why should you spend so much for brand new supplies, when in fact your industry’s waste has tons of perfectly good components you could reuse? Why waste tons of food when millions are famished, even in the UK?

So wait, what exactly is a Circular Economy?

The Circular Economy’s raison d’etre is to reduce the negative economic, social and environmental impacts our current system generates. Win-win scenario can be created by tapping into the wealth of resources hidden in our bins. It reduces the raw materials needed to launch space rockets or to assemble smart phones, saving companies and clients money in the process. In the case of the Chefs, reducing food waste can actually tackles food poverty. By learning from their lessons and tips, we can also reduce our own food bill.

The circular economy proposes an alternative way to make, use and get rid of our things, so they can last longer, have multiple adaptable uses, and are easily taken apart to recover what’s still valuable in them. Think about what happens in nature, where nothing is really lost. The principles are similar here. Have a look at the Ellen MacArthur animation that explains it, it’s brilliant. Or to the cod fish story, the one sold in our supermarkets, as it’s quite enlightening.

Now, how does it work?

Most people are already familiar with the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto.

In Peterborough, we believe there are 7 ways to achieve a circular economy, the 7Rs.

  1. Rethink. We take many things for granted, not really asking questions as to why they are done the way they are. But as clients and consumers, it’s our demand that actually shapes the markets, so we have a bit of power in our hands, and we should use it more.So let’s think differently about resources, remembering they’re not only materials and products, but also capital and people. We can look for more economically viable and sustainable solutions for the products and services that surround us.For instance, do we need to own all the stuff we’ve got that accumulates in our garages and cupboards, likely all forgotten about in no time? Drills are used on average 13 minutes in their lifetime. Could we lease one when needed, rather than buy it? Paris and Toronto are going there, with their “ressourcerie” or Tool Library.As a company, rethinking your operations processes might reveal lots of economic opportunities, just as British Sugar has. The Wissington plant is a great example of how you can make the most of what you have, even rocks and dirty water. It also makes strong economic sense whilst decreasing the company’s environmental footprint and boosting their image.
  2. Redesign is all about creating things that last longer. Things conceived to be modular, thus easier to upgrade, repair, pull apart, reuse and recycle. It is not only sensible environmentally; it does make a lot of business sense. It should also help reverse the programmed obsolescence logic. That is the fact that your product starts to dysfunction right after its warranty expires, or forces you to buy a whole new phone when only the battery died and could have been replaced.The best example here is the Fairphone 2, the first modular mobile phone that is ethically sourced and made to last, as it is designed for its owner to upgrade and repair it easily. As any first of its kind, it’s not cheap. Just as expensive as the latest smart phones on the market.With their EcoDesign process, Philips is relying on 6 green innovation areas that change how they design their products. On top of realising savings, the company generates new revenues and boosts its brand’s popularity.Buildings can also be redesigned. Iconic of our cities’ identities and built to last decades, without any clue on how they’ll actually be used in 10 or 50 years. Using modular design that allows for flexibility in our fast-changing times is an emerging theme. Arup gave it a thought, if you want to see how our buildings might look like in a not-too distant future.
  3. Reuse What you don’t want or need anymore can still be very valuable for others. This is where we enter the Sharing Economy world that we are all familiar with, thanks to the likes of Airbnb. We can all take part in this dynamic landscape, by simply donating stuff, time and knowledge, or by selling and buying second-hand products.In Peterborough, we have great examples: Railworld and its Wildlife Haven run thanks to volunteers and donated items, including the bridge connecting the site across the River Nene. Peterborough Reuse not only diverts a stream of waste from landfill to create bags for life, but trains local women in deprived communities for that purpose. Cross Keys Homes has partnered with Food Cycle to use supermarkets food surpluses that would otherwise be binned. They train volunteers to cook healthy meals offered to deprived communities.Also keep an eye for the upcoming Share Peterborough. An online B2B platform where organisations can share and source resources such as office items, skills or meeting rooms with others in the city.
  4. Repair Before filling up our bins, we should attempt to repair broken items. This might be challenging, as we’ve lost many repair skills in recent times. Yet the trend is changing. The rise of repair cafés, with their positive social impacts, and bike-doctors shows the growing appetite for such things.There are other ways to help in fixing our stuff. Manufacturers can share user-guides on how to repair their products easily. As a customer, we can learn how to mend our broken items by following online tutorials.
  5. Remanufacture This is an exciting economic opportunity for companies. Remanufacturing means taking back items once they reach their end of life, recovering the usable components or materials in them and then producing either by-products, detachable items or new ones with the recovered materials. Take-back schemes and leasing rather than buying products offer great incentives for both businesses and their clients.Caterpillar is a great local example, with Perkins Engines designing for remanufacturing since 1973.
  6. Recycle The most famous R of all. We all know it exists, whether we do it or not. And it’s still a very important part of the circular economy. Yet it’s not the thing we should be doing first, but rather last. If your items can’t be repaired, reused or remanufactured, then it’s time to recycle, and only then. Lots of everyday items can be recycled including paper, plastic, metals or electronic items. Food too, to become compost, fuel or energy. All of us can do it, no matter where we are.Some companies are also fully embracing the recycling path, such as Coca Cola and their new 100% recycled bottles – bottles made out of recycled material and plant by-products. The company goes a bit further, involving regulators and asking them for a “leap of faith” in circular economy to overcome legislative barriers in such innovative approaches.
  7. Recover – Not as famous as recycling, recovering should be the very last option. It basically consists of burning waste to turn it into energy. It is quite controversial, as it requires strict sorting of waste to avoid burning stuff that would be much more valuable in the previous reuse, remanufacture or recycle loops.In Peterborough, we have our own Energy Recovery Facility. Run by Viridor, it diverts 90% of residual household waste from landfill and provides energy to 15,000 homes in the city. The facility accepts commercial waste too.

Is that it? Well, almost.

You’re right. It will take some time to achieve a full transition, and it won’t be a smooth journey as changing mind-sets is a challenge. It will require educational support at all ages and a trust in open data and new technology as great enablers. The potential is there, and the promising benefits and values are starting to flourish.

Whilst many people will tell you that Circular Economy needs to be triggered by pioneers from the private sector, each of us can actually play our part in this 7R wheel, both at home and at work.

There are many other examples to illustrate each R. If you’re already doing anything along these lines or know of people and organisations that are, no matter how they’re calling or labelling their projects, please do let us know. Mapping Peterborough’s diverse circular actions is a strong first step to achieving our ambitious Circular Peterborough goal.


Contact: Cécile Faraud


Tel: 01733 864586