Local Co-operatives Can Lead the Circular Economy

The principles of the Circular Economy model espoused by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation refers to an industrial economy that:

• Intentionally restores the energy and materials it consumes.
• Seeks to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals.
• Designs waste out of the life cycle of a product.

Principles of the Circular Economy takes insight from the economy of living systems in which two process streams exist:

• Biological nutrients, which re-enter the biosphere safely.
• Technical nutrients, which are of higher quality and circulate without entering the biosphere.

By comparison, today’s capitalist consumer economy is a linear model. Raw materials become products, products are consumed and become waste. In fact waste is generated at all three points in the linear model:

• During manufacture e.g. side-products and out-of-specification product.
• During use e.g. packaging, by-products and unused product.
• During post-use handling e.g. garbage bags and ash from incineration.

The Circular Economy model is radical because it advocates that manufacturers and retailers increasingly retain ownership of their products and even, where possible, act as service providers—selling the use and not the one-way consumption of products. The direct implications of this ‘Functional Service’ model implies the development of efficient and effective take-back systems, more durable products, product refurbishment and, where appropriate a shift from a product to a service offer.

The first principle of the circular economy is “The smaller the circle (loop), activity-wise and geographically, the more profitable and resource efficient it is.” Big industry is better placed – activity-wise and geographically – to introduce recycling and re-use technologies and to retain an ownership in use of the products they supply.

Small, traditional manufacturers lack these organisational advantages, but they will often have the advantage of serving very local markets and, when considering re-use or recycle technology solutions have lower operational overheads and can operate with smaller economies of scale. Big industry’s need for technological solutions that are highly intensive, automated and operationally robust should not exist for smaller, traditional businesses such as food and beverage, agricultural and textile manufacturers.

Technological solutions for the re-use or the valorisation of production waste streams from smaller industry players can comprise multiple-stage batch processes, which can be separated in time or require periodic manual intervention. Particularly where labour costs are relatively low, land is cheap and time is not a constraint. With such artisanal technologies in place, a functional service model in which local users participate in the sorting of waste for recycling and re-use by the producer members of the cooperative becomes workable, creating a closer relationship between producer and consumer.

Re-introducing the age-old tradition of recycling, re-invigorating community cooperative movements as agents for change and by combining state-of-the-art separation technologies with new developments in white, green and blue biotechnology, offers the best chance of demonstrating the Circular Economy in the near term.  Pennotec seeks collaborative partnerships to help realise the Circular Economy at a local community level.