Nowadays we are confronted with news about microplastic, plastic polluting the ocean or videos of children playing hide and seek in a sea of trash, on a daily basis. Sometimes so much, that we get indifferent to it.
And the pandemic might have made us stay at home and travel less, which benefits emissions, but at the same time, the consumption of plastic gloves, masks and other disposable items has certainly increased. Where will all those go after use?
Realistically, trash will be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, but not all is lost.
As someone living in a developed country, we consider ourselves blessed. We just export most of our trash to other countries and let them deal with the mess. However, developing countries start protesting against this, quite rightly. We teach our children to not throw away our trash in nature or on the street. Whenever we see someone in front of us still doing it, we tell them, that this is not the right thing to do.
Funny anecdote on this note, once when I was going for a walk with my then 3 years old brother, a couple in front of us threw an empty cigarette package to the ground. My brother, before I could say anything, picked up the package, ran in front of the couple and said: “ Hey, you have lost something.”. As you can imagine, they couldn’t do anything else but take the package back. Who can resist a cute 3-year-old after all?
And yet, when we grow up, what we have learned sometimes crumbles under the pressure of economic profit. Some Countries dump their trash directly in the ocean, others start exporting it to mainly poorer nations that lack the economic power to refuse. This is a vicious circle. So what can we do differently?
Let’s start with the way our economy works in most instances. First, we produce something, then we use it and finally we dispose of it. Unfortunately, at the end of this chain, we are left with a lot of toxic waste. This toxic waste ends up in the oceans, on islands of developed countries and sometimes is just dumped in plain fields. This is a very linear approach and considering that our resources on earth are limited, isn’t going to work for a long time. Humans have already used up a lot of natural resources. What will we do, if there are none left?
As Sir David Attenborough rightfully stated: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist. “
Before humans, natural resources were just doing fine. So why not learn a lesson from nature?
Nature is operating in cyclical ways. Plants grow, they get their energy from the sun and produce O2. At the same time plants serve as food for animals. These animals when they die to return to soil in the form of nutrients and new plants can grow. There is no waste in this system.
Applied to our economy we get what is called a circular economy. The concept of circular economy has first been introduced in the 70s when the architect Walter Stahel came to the insight that the current linear model is not sustainable. Since then more and more companies and governments have started to acknowledge the concept and put it into action. But how does a circular economy look like? First of all, there are 3 main characteristics defining a circular approach. And no, it is not just about recycling.
- Design products to produce less waste, for reuse and/or easy disassembly
- Differentiate between durables and consumable kind of products:
Consumables: consist mostly of biological, non-toxic ingredients that can safely be returned to the biosphere
Durables: made of technical nutrients such as metals or plastic, not suitable to be returned to the biosphere -> design for re-use or upgrade
3. The energy required to fuel the production should come from renewable sources to decrease resource dependency and increase system resilience.
What this concept means for consumers is that we should rethink our concept of ownership. If we just look at how people buy smartphones, it is pretty clear. Do we really have to buy a new smartphone whenever there is a new iPhone? What if we switched to a subscription-based approach where we just rent the smartphone and can then switch it if we need another one. (Rethinking, if we really need to follow every trend is another helpful step).
Still fuzzy? Let’s look at a real-life example of a company built upon a circular approach.
Ecoalf — Project Upcycling the oceans
Remember how I mentioned plastic in the ocean in the beginning?
Javier Goyeneche started Ecoalf in 2010 with the mission to create a truly sustainable fashion brand out of frustration about our use of nature. In 2016 he embarked on his ambitious project “Upcycling the ocean” — An initiative to show, that we don’t need to use natural resources in a careless way to get high-quality fashion. Upcycling the Oceans works with fishermen in different countries to collect trash from the oceans. The trash will then through the use of advanced technology be turned into top quality yarn, that ultimately is used to produce clothes. The three missions of this initiative are “to remove litter that damages marine ecosystems from our seas; giving a second life to recovered waste with a circular economy view, and raising awareness about the global issue that marine litter presents.” While the initiative faces many challenges, Javier’s hopes that many will take the initiative as an example and imitate it in their country.
Ecoalf is just one out of many companies with the mission to create more sustainable business models. Wonder what you personally can do? Why not start with rethinking the way you consume. I am not telling you anything new if I recommend using less plastic bags. When looking for a new phone, why don’t you consider using Product-as-a-Service providers? We have already rethought ownership when it comes to music and videos (Netflix, Spotify), why not extend that to phones, household appliances and if you feel comfortable with the idea, clothes?