Every year, new words, terms and concepts emerge, and they are so often repeated that they become trendy. Some of these new words and concepts remain and become part of our vocabulary. That’s what happened with circular economy, which was born among environmentalists, took over sustainability debates and, today, is part of the economy lexicon. As trends become standards, circular economy changes the way large companies and consumers relate to natural resources and products.
The concept of circular economy appeared in 1989, in an article by British economists and environmentalists David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner. At the time, they showed that traditional economy did not take recycling into account. This led the environment to a secondary role, being simply considered a waste repository, meaning, mainly a garbage disposal. Contrary to traditional and linear economy, whose motto was "to extract, to produce and to discard", the concept of circular economy arose inspired by nature’s cyclic rationale.
In nature, the remains of fruit consumed by animals decompose and become fertilizer for plants, which regrow and give fruits that, in turn, serve as food for animals again. Also known as C2C - cradle to cradle -, the concept of circular economy does not work with the concept of waste. After all, everything can be continuously used and reused in a new cycle. Indeed, for most proponents of circular economy, a residue is nothing more than raw material displaced.
For Guilherme Brammer, a material engineer and founder of Boomera, circular economy differs from its linear version because it means that every product must be thought as a whole. In addition, this includes reusing the materials that make it up so that they return to the productive cycle. If, in the past, people lived in ignorance about the environment, today it is no secret that we are facing the exhaustion of natural resources. Thus, it no longer makes sense for products to be discarded as waste after being used. Brammer claims that, had the circular economy been around longer, some of what is available on the market today would not even be invented. "If something cannot be reused, it shouldn’t be created," he says.
This is, incidentally, one of the properties of circular economy: design without waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, waste does not exist when product components are designed to continue in the cycle of those same materials. That is, the idea of waste does not make sense if the product’s disassembly and reframing are considered by its production time. Established in 2010 by the English sailor and record holder Ellen MacArthur, the foundation is one of the most committed entities in promoting the world's circular economy.
Circular economy and Life Cycle Assessment
For Bo Weidema, teacher at Aalborg University Copenhagen and a member of LCA Consultants, the concept developed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation focuses on material efficiency and leaves behind a broader understanding of the idea that circular economy is "an economic model to maximize ecosystem functioning and human well-being." According to him, this broader interpretation would be in line with the overall perspective of sustainable development most commonly adopted today.
"For us, the circular economy model is one that internalizes all externalities within the decision-making process," he explains. It includes the idea of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a technique widely used to analyze the contribution of a specific circular economy project to sustainable development as a whole. According to the LCA, the renewable origin of a product does not determine if it is sustainable or not; instead, it’s its environmental performance from beginning to end of its shelf life. Fossil-origin materials that are light, efficient, durable, locally produced and recyclable can have very low impact. This is true for plastic materials.
According to Weidema, the closure of materials cycles by recycling of by-products and waste is central to the circular economy concept and should be investigated using the LCA methodology. "True circular responsibility happens when producers take on the treatment of their by-products and waste and avoid receiving credit for non-existent recycling benefits," he says.
Circular economy in consumption
Circular economy is not a fad. Consumers and companies have already realized that it is necessary to change the way of producing consumer goods before natural resources become scarce and waste turns into an inescapable problem. For Brammer, of Boomera, customers are more conscious and demand a new attitude from the corporations they relate to. Consumption habits are changing, and it’s not out of the blue. "This new behavior has a financial impact on companies, and they are already beginning to feel the movement and to project what may happen in the future," he says.
At Boomera, every kind of residue, from diapers to coffee capsules, is transformed into a resin that can be used to develop new products. Moreover, there is work to ensure that these new products are developed and designed with disposal and reuse in mind. After all, rather than rethinking production, regenerating and restoring materials, we need to bring the cycle idea to creation.
For Brammer, circular economy is not only an economic model, but also a new way of producing and thinking about business. Among his favorite examples are those that turn products into services. One well-known example is AirBnB, which makes unused resources available to everyone. With the service, an empty room, or a closed summerhouse gathering dust, begin to integrate a market that did not exist, bringing more efficiency to the installed infrastructure.
Brazil also has exemplary solutions. Brammer recalls Brastemp's water service. For more than 10 years, the company leased "filtered water" to homes and offices across the country. The company converted a linear process - selling more filters - in a circular process - renting filtered water. As a result, it changed its product line so that it lasted more and became easier to maintain, since responsibility for its proper functioning became the company’s, and not the customer's anymore. For Brammer, this is the future of circular economy as a business model.