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How do we make the sectors circular?
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Circular Economy

How do we make consumption good circular?

Households in the Netherlands and France cause their greatest impact on the environment through consumption of consumer goods, such as mobile phones, clothing and furniture (CE Delft, 2018). This impact is therefore greater than eating meat or flies, for example. Within the circular economy it is therefore crucial to close the raw material flows of consumer goods. Fortunately, due to their prominent role in our daily lives and their diversity, there are many progressive initiatives in this area.

Figure 1: The top 10 shows the environmental impact of the average consumption of one person per year in the France, presented in the ReCiPe single score (Pt) (CE Delft, 2018).

Opportunities

In order to seize the opportunities offered by circular consumer goods, the Consumer Goods Transition Team has published 38 concrete action points (Rijksoverheid, 2018). These actions focus on reforming the economy, actions for short-cycle products such as packaging, and actions for medium- and long-cycle products such as clothing and washing machines.

Roughly speaking, there are three strategies to make consumer goods more circular:

  • Design for optimal use, repair and recycling;
  • Entrepreneurship with business models for circular use;
  • Organising high-quality recycling.

There are many companies that apply these strategies to the production of a consumer good. Examples are described in several articles of the Knowledge Card Circular Economy. To illustrate this, three more examples are given below.

Better and circular jeans

Less than 1% of all textiles in the world are recycled for new clothing after disposal. The Dutch clothing brand Mud Jeans aims to recover 100% of the textile from its jeans and recycle it for new jeans. To achieve this, Mud Jeans designs its jeans in such a way that the textile retains its value in recycling. In addition, the brand has set up a system where customers can lease and exchange jeans. If a customer leases a pair of jeans, it will also be repaired free of charge if it tears. This circular jeans brand, which started in a handful of stores in the Netherlands in 2013, is now available in hundreds of stores in Europe and North America that also want to have this innovative brand in their collection (Mud Jeans, 2020).

In the book “Products that Last” Bakker et al. (2014) describe all kinds of examples and 6 strategies for a circular design. Read a summary in this article.

A bicycle subscription is the new normal

Until 10 years ago almost every Dutchman had his own bike in the barn. With the advent of loan and subscription bicycles this own possession is no longer a matter of course. Two companies that have played an important role in this are NS with their OV-fiets and Swapfiets. The latter company, started five years ago with 40 bicycles. In the meantime the company rents out approximately 180,000 bicycles with a subscription guaranteeing fast repair and service (Swapfiets, 2020). While the customer benefits from an always working bicycle, Swapfiets can focus on the design of solid and easily repairable bicycles. While the company is not yet betting on the circular potential of their bicycle rentals, this system offers many opportunities for closing down resources.

Companies that want to start hiring out articles can seek advice from Verhurend Nederland, the branch organisation for the Dutch rental market.

Run on recycled fishing nets

There are all kinds of waste streams in the world that you don’t see easily, but are gigantic. For example, according to the UN Environmental Programme, there are approximately 640 million kilos of abandoned fishing nets in our oceans. While a structural solution to this problem is needed, such as an effective ban on dumping nets or making them biodegradable, recycling is an interim solution. Various organisations have therefore found a way to use fishing nets as a raw material. A good example of this is the carpet manufacturer Desso (2019). Together with their supplier, they have created carpets in which old fishing nets are used as raw material. They have received the prestigious Gold Cradle to Cralde certification for these carpet lines. Carpet manufacturer Interface has also proven to be a circular frontrunner. By designing carpets for reuse and high-quality recycling, this brand has already saved 3.5 million square metres of flooring from landfill (Interface, 2020).

Companies wanting to identify the savings that can be made on the use of raw materials and materials in the production process can use one of the many tools developed for this purpose. Versnellingshuis CE has made an overview of 11 tools to measure circularity.

Economic and ecological gains

Due to the size of the sector, it is difficult to calculate precisely the economic and ecological benefits of circularity in this sector. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculated that closing cycles would reduce the cost of sourcing raw materials for products by 19-23%. In industry, which makes consumer goods to a large extent, that equates to savings of 460 to €550 billion (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2014). With the purchase of consumer goods as the largest item of negative environmental impact, closing these cycles would also yield significant environmental gains (see Figure 1). CO2 emissions in the sector alone would be reduced by 40% (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).

The barriers

Despite the great opportunities and many initiatives for circular utensils, there are still three major barriers that stand in the way of the transition.

Perspective on the design

The vast majority of consumer goods are still designed according to the buy-use-waste principle. This makes the products difficult to disassemble, repair and reuse components. As a result, broken products are thrown away and new ones are made. To break this trend, designers, companies and consumers need to get used to the buy-use-reuse principle. This requires not only new physical designs, but also other earning models that make reuse and repair possible. The Right to Repair action group is lobbying for compulsory repairs to accelerate this movement through politics (Ifixit, 2020).

Unfair competition

Currently, mining and using virgin raw materials is often cheaper than high-quality recycling of raw materials. This is partly because labour in the Netherlands and elsewhere is taxed higher than the use of raw materials, and because many negative externalities of used raw materials are not passed on in the price. This unfair competition will have to be changed with policy (True Price, 2020).

Consumer awareness

Many citizens are not aware of the above barriers or are not active in changing them. However, the right behaviour of citizens is essential for the realisation of the circular economy. Through their buying, using and discarding behaviour, consumers influence the entire economy. Encouraging more circular behaviour requires two things. Firstly, market incentives must entice consumers to use goods in a circular way. Secondly, consumers can encourage companies to produce in a circular way. For example, companies will quickly focus on circular earning models if consumers prefer this. Consumers can also act as ‘prosumers’, bringing circular products or services onto the market themselves (Rijksoverheid, 2018).

A general awareness among consumers about the importance of closed cycles is at the basis of this. Public campaigns such as ‘Appreciate it, repair it’ launched by SIRE to encourage people to repair things (Sire, 2019) and attention in education are important methods for this (Leren voor Morgen, 2020).