The Circular Economy


One of the most compelling ways to think about sustainability is the Circular Economy framework. Conceived and promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it makes clear the need to separate biological and technical “nutrients” (materials). This is a concept promoted by the Cradle to Cradle framework, as well. The idea is twofold:

  1. We need to separate materials into separate waste streams of like materials. Biological materials that breakdown in Nature and can be reused and recycled by composting (for one example) should not be mixed with technical or man-made materials that can be. Instead, these should have their own waste stream that can effectively reuse and recycle them without contaminating Nature’s processes.
  2. In addition to separating types of materials, we need to rethink each cycle so that it’s not just a matter of waste but one of circular use, reuse, and recycling to capture the most value possible from each cycle. It’s not enough, for example, to simply segregate biological waste and dump it somewhere it can’t be reused effectively in Nature. Likewise, simply collecting recyclable materials (and, ideally, ALL materials should be recyclable) and storing them somewhere. If they aren’t actually recycled, there’s little point in doing so. We need to cycle these materials so that there is no such thing as waste anymore.

The Circular Economy helps us organize and plan our actions to achieve the two goals described above.

In addition, I believe that these aren’t the only two cycles that need these considerations. One of the issues with full-circle sustainability (and deficient in many frameworks), is that social and economic cycles need to be explored in the same context as material cycles. In this way, these two cycles should be included (see the image below) in order to approach these simultaneously, and in context.

This is only a beginning. Adding sociocultural and economic flows to this framework will take some work but I believe there is a lot of benefit to doing so. This is a great project for a designer to work on since, in general, social impact tools aren’t terribly rigorous, clear, or effective.