Sustainability Glossary: Circular Economy

As part of the Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability special issue, we asked experts to provide refreshed definitions of key sustainability concepts.

Sustainability Glossary circular economy
Courtesy Lan Truong

In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding put forward the idea of a “closed economy” in which the outputs of one product would become the inputs for another, thereby keeping resources in the economy as long as possible. In the following decade, Swiss architect Walter Stahel coined the term “cradle to cradle” and outlined a vision of a “circular economy” based on resource loops. Most recently, in 2009, the newly established Ellen MacArthur Foundation set out to accelerate the transition to Stahel’s model.

Although shifting our economy is a massive and involved undertaking, there are already a few innovative examples of change—for example, Building Product Ecosystems’ partnership with project teams to recapture gypsum wallboard scrap from construction and demolition sites for the production of new wallboard. This is one example of a used product being directly remade into the exact same product, but there can also be circular economies that require many steps in the supply chain to achieve circularity.

Humanscale’s Smart Ocean chair, released this past spring, is an example that models a more complex process. Discarded fishing nets are gathered, melted into pellets, and molded into chair parts. Each chair uses nearly two pounds of recycled plastic. Although the technology to recycle has been around for decades, using “waste” as the input for manufacturing new products still took years of development because it required creating an entirely new supply chain. Working with our partner Bureo, Humanscale fought for change at each step. It started with demonstrating to local fishers that the collected nets had value and persuading compounders to process smaller runs of this specialized material. We then had to deal with knotty international regulations for shipping “waste,” and renegotiate supplier agreements to require them to incorporate the recycled nets systematically. As a result, fishing nets—an especially harmful type of ocean plastic—have become a resource for local businesses.

The next task will be scaling up this approach. Humanscale, Bureo, Dell, Interface, and a number of other companies are founding members of the NextWave initiative, a global cross-industry consortium committed to increasing the reuse of ocean-bound plastics by developing the first commercially viable ocean-bound plastics supply chain. To be successful with a circular economy, we must first change the global perception of waste.

JANE ABERNETHY is the chief sustainability officer at Humanscale, a sponsor of Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability.

You may also enjoy “Sustainability Glossary: Carbon Accounting.”

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