Circular Economy

This past week I gave a short talk at the Wipe out Waste Annual Banquet to honor companies who have done excellent work in the Charlotte region to wipe out waste.  The event was sponsored by Mecklenburg County and several business organizations.

My topic – the circular economy which refers to a regenerative system in which resource inputs and waste, including emissions and energy leakages, are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops.  An effective system can be achieved through tools that have long-lasting impact:  effective design, accurate measurement, storytelling, new business models, maintenance and repair, closed loops.  It was some of the tools that I emphasized in the talk.

My starting assumptions are as follows:

–we are past some boundaries for earth’s systems. What is noticeable is that waste management is part of each of the systems mentioned by researchers.

–waste generation is increasing too fast.  Advanced economies make up about 16% of the world’s population and produce over 34% of the waste.  The developing world is catching up fast.  The rates of waste are increasing and are troublesome since we are finding fewer places to place it and people are using fewer ways to stop it.

–waste needs to be decoupled from economic growth and rising living standards – we cannot assume that waste is inevitable.

— the core challenge is how can we throw away less – reuse more – design for minimal waste – make our economy more circular so waste becomes food?  How do we get away from the take, make and dispose mentality?

There is lots of hope, as we have excellent role models – South Korea is tops for waste management.  We can learn from low resource use countries.  For example, if we calibrate every economy in terms of US dollars of GDP, how can Australia only use 26 liters of water per US dollar of GDP when China uses 1,048 liters of water per dollar of GDP and Pakistan 1318?  China can learn from Australia, for sure.

If we just attack food – it accounts for about 45% of global waste – we can make a major change in world waste.

The circular economy must focus on making money and improving the user experience.  Global waste may not be presently as apocalyptic a challenge as climate change, but it is easier to solve and has climate implications:

  • Local action works;
  • People will take action when they can see results and waste management produces quick results;
  • The urgency of the problems is not in dispute;
  • Politicians of all parties are in tune with waste management and its linkages to health, quality of life, upward mobility.
  • Solutions abound!

Who are some people and organizations working on these alternatives creating a circular economy.  Lots.  Consider a few examples that may surprise you:

Rolls Royce sells hourly service of an engine;   Phillips       leases LED lights

Want to have some fun – when you are in San Francisco go the    Livermore-Pleasanton fire station    and see the light bulb that has been on since       1901 – so much for planned obsolescence.

Frankfurt, Germany is supporting waste to energy       systems at the municipal level to alleviate the impacts       of climate change and waste;

Here are a few tools I’d like you to think about for the next six months – ones for you to use:

  1. Everything that is not nature we designed – so why not be more purposeful in creating this circular economy; develop this skill; use it everywhere; be a designer for less waste – remember we are considering economic value and the user experience

You can gain inspiration from nature.  Consider reviewing the biomimicry institute website and see how nature can help solve lots of waste challenges.

  1. Measurement is fundamental – measure everything including physical and mental information that can show where inputs and materials can be changed for less impactful on earth;

Applaud Ingersoll Rand for one report.  If we simply get every public company to issue one report – not two separate reports (financial and social responsibility) we will make lots of progress toward       solving waste and other environmental problems.

Develop your information at the least – what is your footprint on this world and what are you doing to change that?

Can your waste be a business opportunity?

We all need to learn life cycle analysis if for no other reason it creates a sensitivity to waste and material use.

  1. Storytelling is critical – be a storyteller to influence people.

Get away from And, And, And – And we are using XYZ;       and you should

Move to South Park’s method:  And, But, Therefore.        This simple   change will make a hugh difference.

Take a look at these two videos that illustrate the point.  Both are from the same company, Eli Lily.  Both are well done.  See the difference, however between this video on the company and the one about diabetes.

If you are in the waste business or even remotely tied to it, tell people not what you do (I am an engineer; I am VP of Sustainability} – tell them what impact you have – use ways to get permission to tell people more.

And your words matter greatly.  Experiment with different ways to tell people about what you do and why you do it and what they can do to improve waste management.  Take a look at this video and you’ll understand immediately.

So, we have an urgency; we have a focus that people with various attitudes can embrace, we have a viewpoint on a circular economy – enhancing economic power and the user experience; we have tools that work now.

Design thinking and methods; measurement (get your companies and organizations to only issue one report); be a story teller.

What will you do when you walk out of this room?  What one action will you take?  What story will you tell to create this circular economy.



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