The circular economy is thriving. Indeed, it represents the main strategy to generate employment and growth in Europe over the coming years. But, what is the circular economy? Another new concept to memorize? Is it tangible? Is it just a fashion or is it here to stay? And, how to explain it so that it is not just an attractive concept, but also understandable…?
A little history in this respect always helps to set the context and to understand the evolution of terms. In the 70s, other trends, forerunners of the circular economy, already talked about the essence of this term. For example “Cradle to Cradle” (Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart), which promotes redesigning products taking into account all the impacts of their life cycle, invites us to design biodegradable food packaging. There is also the “Blue economy” (Gunter Pauli), which encourages us to emulate nature when producing goods and services, for example by producing detergents using food leftovers. But, who introduced the concept of the circular economy?
In 2005, the British sailor Ellen McArthur (Whatstandwell, United Kingdom, 1976) embarked on a personal challenge: to beat the record for solo non-stop circumnavigation of the world without assistance. McArthur overcame the challenge and she took advantage of the experience to reflect on finite resources. In her own words: “It’s hard to explain, but you enter a different mode when you head out there. Your boat is your entire world, and what you take with you when you leave is all you have”. The sailor also remarked that “We manage it down to the last […] packet of food. No experience in my life could have given me a better understanding of the definition of the word “finite.” What we have out there is all we have. There is no more”.
After achieving this personal milestone, Ellen McArthur investigated how she could promote changes in the current economy and created the concept of the circular economy. The linear economy (make-use-discard) had to evolve toward a circular model (closing the life cycle of products).
What is new with this theory? Proposing the design of products in such a way that, at the end of their life cycle, their components are separated and recovered to generate the same or another product. If we can deconstruct an omelette, why not a mobile phone? It is a question of applying the deconstruction of nouvelle cuisine to any product. This tendency also promotes the use of a good as opposed to owning it. This implies reflecting on business models and seeking alternative ways of making a profit from goods and services. The circular economy establishes that all products have two types of components, depending on their nature: biological and technical. All the components must be reconverted either into nutrients for the natural environment or into materials for industry.
What examples can we currently find of the application of the circular economy? Mud Jeans allows high-quality designer jeans and sweatshirts to be rented, encouraging use of the article as opposed to owning it. Ford and Heinz are investigating the use of tomato fibre as a material which could be used to produce wiring, storage bins or other objects. For its part, Dryvi is an application which allows a private vehicle to be rented when it is not being used.
At Suez, in Spain, we generate energy from wastewater treatment sludge; we treat urban or industrial wastewater to offer new uses and reclaimed water for irrigation or street cleaning; we innovate and we use technology such as pico-turbines, which generate energy as the water passes through the network.
Our commitment to the sustainable management of resources is clear from the tangible projects existing in the different territories in which we are present. Water is the resource which allows us to progress with this process of transforming the current economy. The European Commission, in its Manifesto for a Resource-Efficient Europe, indicates: “In a world with growing pressures on […] the environment, the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a […] regenerative circular economy”. As major players in water management, we must lead this transformative power and promote this economic change.