Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Sailing towards a circular economy

Martin Gibson - Head of Operations

The around the world clipper ship race recently finished, with the boats mooring in the St Katharine Docks, just outside our offices. The boats themselves don’t look very comfortable for such a long voyage but they certainly bring out a camaraderie and sense of purpose in their crews. The crews, in case you don’t know, are made up of people with a range of backgrounds. They come together for different reasons but with a common purpose.

The Clipper ships stop at a number of ports in their circumnavigation of the world. This allows them to restock with provisions. When Ellen MacArthur circumnavigated the world without stopping, she had to load up with all of the things that she needed for the entire voyage. This approach focussed Ellen’s thinking about what she actually needed; seeing the analogy with mankind’s use of resources on Earth. After her triumphant, record-breaking solo trip of the globe, Ellen put her understanding of the importance of resources to wider use, setting up the
Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Natural systems are dominated by cycles which we have come to understand over thousands of years. Some of these are driven by short term temporal fluctuations: the cycle of the seasons driven by Earth’s rotation around the sun. Other cycles have more complex drivers; the water cycle, for example, is influenced by seasons but also works over longer timescales as it describes the movement of water between the oceans, atmosphere, rivers, the ground and living systems. The carbon cycle describes the flow of carbon and includes its various forms, such as the gas CO
2 and solids in oil and calcium carbonate.

Since the industrial revolution, human activities haven’t usually followed cycles. Instead, they have been based on extraction, followed by manufacturing, use and disposal: the ‘take – make – use – discard’ linear process. Natural systems can cope with this up to a point without being unduly perturbed. Unfortunately, with so many people driving the use of so many resources and the production of so much waste, we have now affected many natural cycles and the consequences are far reaching.  It is true that over the last 25 years or so, there has been a trend towards recycling and reuse, although this was often driven initially by the need to reduce waste going to landfill. The circular economy approach takes this a lot further.

By ignoring natural cycles rather than working with them, we are warming the planet, reducing biodiversity and could threaten the ability of humans to have a high quality of life. In case you think this is just the view of someone with a professional environmental interest, you might want to take a look at what the MoD has to say about the environment in its
strategic outlook up to 2045.

The recognition of the sense and benefits of working in a circular economy is growing. Business (as is often the case on critical environmental matters) is leading the way. I’d recommend you read
Andrew Kinsey’s article on how it relates to the construction industry. Government also recognises the importance of the approach, helped NGO’s such as the Green Alliance. The ‘Turquoise Cities’ approach that we have developed at Temple also factors in the circular economy and we have used it to help assess the London Infrastructure Plan 2050.

Of course, going from recognition to changing things is unlikely to be an easy process. In our linear economy, we make purchasing decisions based on what we need in our part of the chain. Somehow we need to influence what the supply chain should be and then purchase and use things accordingly. It is hard, however, to buy things that aren’t yet available and to pass on a used resource if there is no-one who wants it.
Like those clipper ship crews, we can do a lot more than we might think if we have a common purpose. The first step is often to think differently about something. So, next time you see a sailing ship, think what decisions you can make to align the world economy with natural resource cycles, then do it!

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