Circular economy is all the rage these days. And it is easy to see why companies and investors alike are falling head over heels in love with the concept. Unlike some other admirable yet vague sustainability initiatives, circularity and its less-than-glorious re:s (recycling, reusing, remanufacturing, recovering) is simply good old efficiency improvement. We are talking about saving big money here, not just looking good in front of the cameras occasionally by donating money to a worthy cause. Most sensible and self-respecting businesspeople have been doing it all along, of course.
So, what’s with this new hype? It might be just a growing realisation that the dominant economic model of ‘planned obsolescence’ is not working anymore in a world where we are constantly reminded that resources are not infinite. And what better antidote to our prolific waste than the circular economy? Also, governments are beginning to step up. Calls for more circularity feature in policy documents around the world, from the EU’s new circular economy action plan and Biden’s American Jobs Plan all the way to the African Circular Economy Alliance.
Personally, though, I am always much more impressed by real-life examples than by big words. So here are a couple of amazing projects that caught my attention just recently.
About a month ago, Swedish Plastic Recycling (Svensk Plaståtervinning), which is owned by a large part of the Swedish business community, announced that they are investing heavily in building the world’s largest and most modern facility for plastic recycling, Site Zero. According to the press release, it will be able to recycle all plastic packaging from Swedish households! Site Zero will be completely climate neutral, too, releasing zero emissions. The facility is powered by renewable energy. The small amount of plastic and other waste that cannot be recycled will be sent to energy recovery without climate emissions, so-called CCS (Carbon Capture Storage). “There is today no other facility in the world that has that capability,” explains an understandably proud Mattias Philipsson, CEO of Swedish Plastic Recycling.
And if recycled plastic is not glamorous enough for you, let’s move on quickly to something completely different, the BMW i Vision Circular. The overriding aim for the futuristic project, revealed in September, is to create a vehicle that is optimised for closed materials cycles and achieves 100% use of recycled materials and 100% recyclability. BMW’s new concept car has a clear mono-volume design made up of just a small number of parts, with the array of different materials used reduced to a minimum. It will scrap paint for an anodised finish and replace welding and glue with fasteners, making it easier to take materials apart for recycling. It features steering wheel rims 3D-printed from wood powder. Oh, and the colourful logo is replaced by an engraving to reduce the use of plastic, by the way.
I don’t know about you, but I’m in awe of the human ingenuity and entrepreneurship that make projects like this happen. Circular economy rules!
 Strictly speaking, ‘planned obsolescence’ refers to the, at best inadvertent, at worst morally dubious practice of manufacturing products that won’t stand the test of time. The ‘Battery-gate’ scandal in which Apple found itself embroiled is a classic example.