# Circular economy: Getting the circulation going

### Subjects

• A Correction to this article was published on 13 April 2016

In linear economics, objects of desire from skyscrapers to paperclips are waste waiting to happen. Now, linearity is reaching the end of the line: designers are looking to the loop and redefining refuse as resource.

## Barbara Kiser

Books & Arts editor for Nature.

Circularity is at the core of eco-design, the production methodology in which waste is repurposed and environmental impacts such as raw-material use are reduced through reuse and recycling. But if that loop is a lasso for reining in excess, the reality — as US philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the industrializing 1840s — remains that “Things are in the saddle,/And ride mankind”. The scale of global waste and its proportionate economic and environmental costs is gargantuan.

The Trent 1000 engine: Rolls-Royce has run a recycling programme for more than a decade. Credit: Rolls Royce

Some 269,000 tonnes of plastic litter the world's oceans, and vast industrial cast-offs such as manure lagoons and slag heaps blight landscapes. What lurks beneath is daunting. Landfill swallows much domestic and construction waste, where residual energy is lost and decomposition under anaerobic conditions creates a stream of problematic subwaste, from the powerful greenhouse gas methane to leachable contaminants such as benzene. The United States sends 40% of its food to landfill and discards 70–80% of the 145 million tonnes of construction and demolition debris that it generates each year — even though much of the wood, metal and minerals is recyclable. In 2012, Europe sent almost half of its 2.3 billion tonnes of waste to landfill. And that is just stuff: up to 50% of industrial energy input becomes waste heat.

Faced with this entrenched dynamic, how can closed-loop systems become the norm? One answer is to integrate them into circular economies — wheels within wheels. This model looks to extend the life of products at the 'use' stage, retaining value and designing out harmful by-products such as toxic substances, to create the perfect habitat for ecologically innovative companies.

For a model that slots so neatly into eco-thinking, the circular economy is a surprisingly venerable concept. In 1966, economist Kenneth Boulding hatched the idea of “a stable, closed-cycle, high-level technology” in his seminal paper 'The economics of the coming spaceship Earth' (see A. Rome Nature 527, 443–444; 2015). Five years later, in a Life magazine interview, systems theorist R. Buckminster Fuller — an advocate of 'more with less' design from the 1920s — declared that pollution “is nothing but resources we're not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” That year also saw the publication of Design for the Real World (Pantheon), an influential manifesto by Viennese educator (and ally of Fuller) Victor Papanek, who inveighed against designers creating “whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape” and called for a socially inclusive, environmentally responsible design ethic.

THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY A Nature special issue nature.com/thecirculareconomy

The 1970s saw significant practical developments. US landscape architect John T. Lyle pioneered 'regenerative design' focused on local, renewable resource use. Swiss architect Walter Stahel (see page 435) codified existing ideas and developed key new ones as principles for his Product-Life Institute in Geneva in the 1980s. More recently, German chemist Michael Braungart and US architect William McDonough (who had collaborated with Lyle) established the product and system certification Cradle to Cradle (a coinage of Stahel's), which treats industrial flows as metabolic and waste as nutrients (C. Wise et al. Nature 494, 172–175; 2013). Their book Cradle to Cradle (North Point) was published in 2002.

Such design revolutions are essentially longitudinal collaborations between generations, as historian of technology Walter Isaacson has revealed (J. Light Nature 514, 32–33; 2014). Meanwhile, eco-design has moved on from the isolated gizmos and warranties of the 1970s, such as Germany's 'life cycle' eco-label, Blue Angel. New ventures are designing circularity in from the off, as the case studies here demonstrate. Enterra in Vancouver, Canada, recycles unsold organic food to feed fly larvae, which it then harvests as livestock feed (see 'Transform waste into protein'). AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey, grows up to 4 million kilograms of baby leafy greens a year in vertical indoor 'fields', without pesticides and using 95% less water than in field farming.

A number of grand old companies are retrofitting circularity. BAM Construct UK (of the Dutch Royal BAM Group, founded in 1869) focuses on disassembly — ensuring that the raw materials it uses are either interchangeable or easily separated, and that components can be dismantled (see 'Design for deconstruction'). UK aerospace-engine powerhouse Rolls-Royce plc has cut raw-material use, cost and emissions through its recycling programme, Revert (see 'Create consistent supply systems'), which emphasizes 'power by the hour' and remanufacturing.

Academia and governments are also waking up to circular thinking, from China (see page 440) to Europe. British sailor and circumnavigator Ellen MacArthur aims to speed the transition through her eponymous foundation in Cowes, UK, which has synthesized existing knowledge to educate on, and catalyse innovation towards, the circular economy, collaborating energetically with businesses as well as design and engineering universities. On board are Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands; the University of Bradford, UK, which established the first circular-economy master's degree in 2013; and, under a fellowship with the philanthropic US Schmidt Family Foundation in Boca Raton, Florida, a consortium of 12 universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Tongji University in Shanghai, China, the Indian National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and Imperial College London.

Collectively, all this constitutes a great deal more than a gleam in Buckminster Fuller's eye. Yet if the circular economy is an ecosystem for green innovation, it is primarily an island one: wildlife corridors are few. No city, region or country has embraced the vision fully. And the urbanizing, consuming and wasting world does not stand still: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that the global middle class (with all its material hankerings and 'disposable' income) will swell to 4.9 billion by 2030 (from 1.8 billion in 2009). Meanwhile, the evolving industrial worldscape — a welter of start-ups, monocultures and multinationals, most clinging to business-as-usual — contributes a dynamic unpredictability.

## Nitesh Magdani: Design for deconstruction

Director of Sustainability, BAM Construct UK, Hemel Hempstead.

The town hall in Brummen, the Netherlands, was built to be disassembled and recycled. Credit: BAM Bouw en Techniek

With sustainable construction company BAM Construct UK, I help to develop buildings that are fit for purpose and perform as intended for their whole lifetime. My focus is passive design, renewable and modular materials and buildings with low energy demand. Major influences have been the Cradle to Cradle approach and architects who explore biomimicry, such as Antoni Gaudí and Santiago Calatrava. The circular-economy model has provided a larger organizing idea with which to synthesize these strands, because it is predicated on using materials that can retain asset value for longer and can eventually be taken back to their biological or technical cycles — reused, repurposed or remanufactured — to reduce waste and unlock new economic opportunities.

BAM's first 'circular' pilot project is the town hall in Brummen, the Netherlands. The client had outgrown its existing building and needed a larger space for at least another 20 years. With Rau Architects in Amsterdam and its sister company Turntoo, we offered a 'building as material bank' to maximize value for the municipality (given that it may wish to move its offices in time). Our competition-winning offer took into account the full costs of the building over its 20-year occupancy, and provided greater price certainty than conventional approaches. Key to this was that after 20 years, components of the building (such as structural timber and metals) could be returned, under contract, to suppliers, unlocking a minimum 20% of their residual value. This 'closed loop' approach reduces manufacturers' reliance on virgin materials and diminishes price volatility.

Technical elements designed for disassembly include the overall shell, cladding, internal partitions and cooling. The design avoids coatings and resins wherever possible to make parts interchangeable and allow separation of valuable raw materials. Components have to retain value over time, so we bring partners such as electronics suppliers and manufacturers Philips and 8Point3 to the table. Many of our projects also incorporate prefabricated elements, so design proceeds through a standardized procurement process to reduce production costs, as well as increasing residual values for key components to more than 50%.

“Transparency through the supply chain is essential, so our work has to be highly collaborative.”

Beyond materials, we look at systems and processes such as the cost of dismantling, logistics, and storage of components, how it is done, and by whom. We decide who takes responsibility and ownership of the materials during and after the use phase. Transparency through the supply chain is essential, so by its very nature, our work has to be highly collaborative. Sander Holm, a key sustainability leader at our Dutch sister construction and engineering company BAM Bouw en Techniek, notes, “manufacturers and suppliers must sit at the table together as soon as possible. This kind of co-creation delivers more innovation, and also a higher residual value.”

We are currently starting a project with The Great Recovery, a sustainability network launched in 2012 by the RSA (formerly the Royal Society of Arts) in London, to encourage designers, manufacturers and recyclers to co-create solutions for material reuse. We are using 'teardown' methodology, in which production systems are scrutinized to tease out problems and opportunities for 'designing up' to circularity. BAM will focus on processes key to the circular economy, including building-information modelling, a digital shared-knowledge resource used to make decisions about a building's life cycle, such as resource productivity.

At the moment, there is no guarantee that buildings or products designed with natural materials or for deconstruction will be reused. And there is little information on existing building stocks and their potential for sustainable renovation. This must change. One of BAM's challenges is the need to educate the value chain — encouraging our industry towards procurement with an eye to the longer term, and switching to 'performance or take-back' contracts, which keep the responsibility for maintenance, durability and replacement of parts with suppliers. Through the UK Supply Chain Sustainability School, BAM has hosted the first of a series of workshops to work through some of the barriers to circular-economic models. Building on our status as leader in the Dutch Benchmark Circular Business Practices 2015, we are gradually moving from focusing on waste reduction in the construction process to reducing waste over a building's life cycle.

## Change history

• ### 31 March 2016

This article originally said that William McDonough studied under John Lyle; in fact, he collaborated with Lyle. The text has been corrected.

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Circular economy: Getting the circulation going. Nature 531, 443–446 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/531443a

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