To build a circular economy, we need to put recycling in the bin

Recycling is linear, but the economy shouldn't be.

reduce the need to recycle in order to build a circular economy
Jason South/The Age via Getty Images

Too often the concept of a circular economy is muddled up with some kind of advanced recycling process that would mean keeping our industrial system as it is and preserving a growing consumption model.


This idea is based on a belief that recycling will take care of everything.

One of the most startling examples of this is the part of the European Union's Circular Economy Action Plan which aims to increase recycling rates: up to 70% of all packaging waste by 2030 and 65% of all municipal waste by 2035. In a properly built circular economy, one should rather focus on avoiding the recycling stage at all costs. It may sound straightforward, but preventing waste from being created in the first place is the only realistic strategy.

While we obviously need to continue recycling for quite some time, putting the emphasis on genuine circular innovations – that is, moving us away from a waste-based model – should be our sole objective.

Recycling is linear

In a linear economy, we do not account for the side-effects generated by a product once sold to an end customer. The aim is to sell a maximum number of products at minimal cost. Continuous pressure to reduce costs leads to the creation of many of these side-effects – called externalities by economists. The higher a company's rate of production and the higher its efficiency, the more successful it will be at selling its goods in a fiercely competitive environment.


What is a circular economy?

This worked well in the 20th century when resources were easily available and raw material prices kept decreasing. Waste, as an economic externality, was not the producers' responsibility. Managing waste cycles, dumping it out of sight or, at best, recycling it – but only when it was cost-effective – were under the control of our national institutions.

Visionary manufacturers, who understand the upcoming challenges of increasing their economic resilience, know better: a product that is returned for repair will cost less to fix and sell again, than manufacturing it from scratch.

In our current model, we extract resources, transform them into products, and consume or use them, prior to disposing of them. Recycling only starts at the throwing-away stage: this is a process that is not made to preserve or increase value nor to enhance materials.

We need to understand that recycling is not an effective strategy for dealing with unused resource volumes in a growth model. We will find ourselves in a never-ending pursuit of continuously generated waste, rather than seeing the avoidance of waste as a path to beneficial innovations on many levels.

Of course, it is easier to think about recycling. This avoids changing the whole of our volume-based production model. But in a world where we have to shift our consumption patterns and use less energy, recycling no longer has all the answers.

Recycling is 'business-as-usual'

Since we cannot stop the volume of waste overnight, investments in the recycling industry are needed. But truly meaningful investment in developing a circular economy takes place outside of the recycling space. Indeed, the more we recycle and the more we finance recycling factories, the more we stay 'linear'. We mistakenly believe this is the best route to solve our problems - but by staying in a recycling-based economy, we will delay the transition to an advanced circular economy.

In a circular economy, resources do not end up as recyclables since products are made to last several lifecycles. Products' lifespans are extended via maintain, repair, redistribute, refurbishment and/or re-manufacture loops, thus they never end up in the low-value, high-need-for-energy loop: recycling.

We live in a world in dire need of disruptive innovations. Closing loops next to where customers live while avoiding waste is a short and longer-term win-win for any leading re-manufacturer. Short-term because you are in direct contact with your customers, and taking back a product that needs maintenance is an opportunity to better understand their needs and help them with additional services. Long-term because you will lower your exposure to future financial risks. Any of the feedback loops that exist prior to the recycling loop are an opportunity to take back control over your stock of resources – taking control away from the raw material markets, which may become highly volatile. Increased interactions with your customers, both commercial and financial, and an in-depth understanding of their needs, would increase customer loyalty and a business' overall resilience.

Re-using, re-distributing and/or remanufacturing strategies are the preferred approaches in a circular economy, as they are based on parts durability. Caring for and preserving the value of product components increases corporate economic resilience, while diminishing external market risks. Whether you are acting in a highly advanced or a developing economy, these strategies make crystal-clear sense: they are less costly in the long-run because repairing a product made to last is always less expensive than producing it from scratch.

Leapfrogging into valued supply chains

Following this approach, we must move away from activities that devalue the material, such as recycling, and instead invest in those activities that preserve it: reuse and remanufacture. These two are especially important since they create many more secure jobs. Walter R. Stahel, the godfather of the modern circular economy, introduced the metric of labor input-per-weight ratio (man-hour-per-kg, or mh/kg) to measure job creation in relation to resource consumption. He found that the ratio of mh/kg when building a remanufactured engine from used resources compared to making the same engine from virgin materials is 270:1. The impact on employment is huge.

The re-localization and the re-sizing of activities closer to customers become critical. Production sites should migrate from a highly centralized global hub to units designed to fulfill local needs. In developed markets, a possible plan could be to develop strategic partnerships with local service providers, who can provide the infrastructure. In emerging markets, where there is often an urgent need for jobs, leapfrogging straight into a national re-manufacturing strategy is the way forward. Becoming the next 'world factory' hub is an obsolete vision today.

One way to start thinking like a leader in the next economy while creating jobs could be in order of priority:

  • Reuse by repairing (goods) through re-hiring (people), while sharing the radical benefits (awareness) of such a model
  • Redistribute by promoting access (goods) through collaboration (people), while sharing information (awareness) about this model
  • Remanufacture via the ease of disassembly (goods) by training (people), while sharing the acquired knowledge (awareness) through this model
  • Migration of recycling activities by diverting (goods) to service models, transferring skills (people) to remanufacturing processes (awareness).

All of the above make sense in a world where planetary limits have already hit most economies.

Adopting a circular strategy by avoiding reliance on recycling is the way forward.

This is about genuine innovation derived from genuine leadership.

Reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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