In my last post I mentioned that I am currently working on a group project conducting research into the Circular Economy. Now, I suppose I’d better explain what the circular economy actually is. Before I was exposed to it here at Cranfield I had never heard of it, so I can hardly expect you to know what I was talking about (if you do, I am thrilled because it means the idea is on its way to becoming mainstream).
The idea of a circular economy is based on the premise that our world currently functions in a linear fashion. We dig resources out of the ground, we transform them into things that people can use, and when we are done with them we throw them away, primarily to landfills. A circular economy, as the name suggests, would involve circulating our resources through the system for as long as possible. We would make things using, as resource material, the waste of other products. We would do this as much as possible, reducing our reliance on ever scarcer resources in the ground, and maximising the value of the resources we have already brought into the system. The idea is largely borrowed from nature, the perfect example of a circular system. One organism’s waste is valuable to another and biological material is constantly returned back to the earth where the cycle begins all over again.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, started by Dame Ellen MacArthur (a British sailor famous for her record breaking solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 2005), is championing the shift away from our wasteful linear system to the circular economy. Through a series of reports they have highlighted the enormous potential economic benefits of the system as well as the positive impact it would have for the sustainability of the planet.
My own involvement in assisting in the shift to the circular economy began a few weeks ago with the start of my group project, which forms part of my masters degree at Cranfield University. The basis of the project is an investigation into a method of improving the efficiency of our use of resources and how we might make it easier to return materials back into the system when products reach the end of their life. The project is three months long and could, potentially, be the starting point of a radical shift in the way we handle our resources.
A particular aspect of the concept of a circular economy that interests me is what’s known as collaborative consumption. The idea here is that we can leverage the power of collaboration and sharing to enjoy the use of products or services, without the need to actually own the product. It is easiest to explain with an example:
You are a student in London. You don’t own a car because you cannot afford to buy one and you really don’t want all the hassle of having to deal with insurance, tax or even simply finding a place to park it every evening. However, you find that for one of your projects you need to travel for the next moth to somewhere that is not accessible to public transport so you really need a car. You could take a taxi or rent a car, but those would quickly become expensive. Or, you could use Liftshare, a car sharing service that would match you with someone who owns a car and is going the same way you are. You pay far less than you would for a taxi, the owner of the car makes a little bit of money out of the extra space in their car, and you both get to where you need to be; everybody wins!
This is the power of collaborative consumption. A fundamental idea behind the concept is that a lot of the products we own, sit around doing nothing (known as idling capacity). When you think properly about it, you don’t actually want the product, you want the benefit it brings you. Not many people want to own a power drill, they just want to be able to make a hole in the wall when they need to put up shelves. We can use the power of community and collaboration to meet our needs without having to own a million and one different products.
This idea is not new, it simply came close to extinction in the age of mass-consumerism, when we measured our success and happiness by the number of things we owned. It is slowly coming back to life, however, as people realise that owning more things does not bring happiness at all. The power of technology and connectivity is now making it far easier to find people who might have what we need and is happy to share it with us. Collaborative consumption is about using our humanity and our desire to be part of a community to meet our needs without having to buy more things. In terms of the circular economy, it is a means of reducing our reliance on digging more and more resources out of the ground. All it requires of you, to make a world of difference, is to get involved.