• Andrew Byrne

In the loop: the circular economy gains momentum

Updated: Sep 9




To some people, the circular economy is just another term for recycling but this is too reductive. The Swiss architect, Walter Stahel, is credited with developing the concept through the 1980s and the mantle has since 2010 been taken up most prominently by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


Traditionally, many products had a take (resources from the ground) to make (products for use) then waste (when they are no longer needed) or a cradle-to-grave life cycle as part of what is termed the linear economy.


The circular (or closed-loop) economy instead utilises cradle-to-cradle continuous lifecycles where, ideally, if products cannot be re-used, they can be adapted for a different use. In this system, the take-make-waste model of the linear economy is replaced by a more holistic approach.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the three principles of a circular economy as:

  1. Design out waste or pollution at the development stage of a product. It is estimated that 80% of the environmental impact is determined at the design stage.

  2. Keep products and materials in use through designing them to be reused (especially in the case of food or packaging), repaired or remanufactured.

  3. Regenerate natural systems by, for instance, returning nutrients to the soil and other ecosystems.

A white paper published in July by Major Infrastructure - Resources Optimisation Group (MI-ROG), a forum for UK infrastructure operators founded by the infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, details how to apply circular economy approaches to deliver net zero carbon strategies.

The paper concurs with the MacArthur Foundation model, estimating a 50% reduction in carbon emissions is achievable by using low-carbon materials, streamlining delivery processes and minimising resource consumption. It also dares to identify building nothing new as a circular economy option whilst acknowledging the more realistic aim of retrofitting existing structures for new purposes.

In February, Historic England estimated that refurbishment and retrofitting of historic buildings could see a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Factor in the benefits accruing to the environment from applying circular economy models to consumer consumption and there is a compelling argument to be made.

The message from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is clearly being heard with Lego becoming the latest company to join the Foundation’s network. Elsewhere during the last week, both Tommy Hilfiger and Timberland have committed to become “circular”.


Travelling in circles has taken on a whole new meaning.

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