Among the biggest global challenges we are confronted with are access to fresh water, food, energy, and other essential resources necessary to maintain human life and the modern societies we know today, while remaining within the carrying capacity of the Earth. In this blog, I will discuss the merits of investing in Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy, which offers a rare opportunity for creative, tangible solutions to many of these challenges in a way that is accessible, effective and sustainable.
How we got here
Modern society has been made possible due to human creativity and the invention of technologies making it possible to transform relatively easily accessible and affordable natural resources into high-density energy sources (e.g. coal, petroleum, and gas). These lead to the Industrial Revolution, and grew into the ability to manipulate and use materials to manufacture products and infrastructure, up to complete mega-cities. This ability has brought significant progress and prosperity among many communities around the globe.
However, this industrialization of society has also created a greater inter-dependency and vulnerabilities to impacts of the economic system. The current system, based on a “take-make-waste” linear model relies on an ineffective use of available resources provided by nature, and leads to unintended consequences, such as waste, pollution, and contamination of the air, water, food and other basic needs to human beings and environment. Maintaining this ongoing linear economic system requires the continued extraction of more natural resources, which are increasingly becoming scarce and continue to generate waste, which negatively affects the health of humans as well as the environment.
ASDF argues that many of the major social and environmental problems we are currently facing can be derived from (1) the failures in the proper selection of non-toxic primary materials and chemicals, (2) lack of rational use of natural resources, (3) and a failure in design of basic products, up to the level of the current linear economic operating system. There is a realization that the current economic model is the principle cause and at the same time the only sphere where human intervention can lead to improving or solving the global food, water, energy, and materials crises. This can be done by re-thinking and re-designing the current economic model and transforming it into an eco-intelligent Circular Economic model based on the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles.
Moving towards a Circular Economy
The term Circular Economy is gaining global traction as a means for concerted international action to help create a new industrial model and economic system that is better aligned to the rules of nature, while allowing for human beings to continue to maintain the standards of modern society. Due to its recent emergence as a new terminology, it is still evolving without a formal global consensus on its definition yet. Since the concept incorporates and significantly relies on the design principles of Cradle-to-Cradle®, it recognizes the need to re-think the way we are making products and move towards a circular economic model.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes Circular Economy as one that is “restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, at all times”. They highlight five principles to realize a Circular Economy: “(1) Circular economy is a global economic model that decouples economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources; (2) Distinguishes between and separates technical and biological materials, keeping them at their highest value at all times; (3) Focuses on effective design and use of materials to optimize their flow and maintain or increase technical and natural resource stocks; (4) Provides new opportunities for innovation across fields such as product design, service and business models, food, farming, biological feedstocks and products; and (5) Establishes a framework and building blocks for a resilient system able to work in the longer term” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). William McDonough defines “Circular Economy” as “a resourceful economic system and innovation engine, providing clean materials, energy, water and human ingenuity. In essence, the Circular Economy puts the “re” back in resources” (MBDC, 2015).
ASDF acknowledges Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles as the foundation of a so-called Circular Economy and presents the need for using the specific terms “Eco-Intelligent” and “Circular” combined, since “Circular Economy” itself does not guarantee that once you figured out how to close the loop of materials and resources use in the economic model by design, this is done respecting the limits and boundaries and the regenerative capacity of the Earth’s ecosystem processes.
As example of this distinction, consider the rate of water extraction and use from aquifers for the manufacturing of products that are compatible with the Circular Economy concept. This approach acknowledges that the ever-increasing pace and need for more products by a continuously growing global population may turn out to be very difficult to balance with nature’s rate and capacity to regenerate the aquifer with fresh water. That capacity is highly dependent on the climate conditions and other natural phenomena, which may result to be significantly slower.
Cradle-to-Cradle® is a registered trademark of MBDC and is an innovation platform for designing beneficial economic, social, and environmental products, processes and systems based on in-depth scientific analysis and assessment. Cradle-to-Cradle® design is characterized by three principles derived from nature: (1) Everything is a resource for something else, (2) Use clean energy, and (3) Celebrate diversity.
Cradle-to-Cradle® thinking includes the recognition that in nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to either be safely returned to the soil as “biological nutrients”, or collected after use, dissasembled and re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as “technical nutrients” without contamination. Furthermore, it recognizes that living things thrive on the energy of current solar income and that human constructs can use renewable energy sources while supporting human and environmental health. And as nature celebrates diversity, designs and solutions should respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by each location in an elegant and effective manner. Rather than seeking to minimize the harm humans inflict, Cradle to Cradle® reframes design as an intentional positive, regenerative force. This paradigm shift reveals opportunities to improve quality, increase value, and spur innovation (MBDC, 2015).
Thus, understanding and recognizing that the Economy and Human Society will continue to operate within the Ecosystem of the Earth, it is important to understand (1) the regenerative capacity and rate of ecosystem processes, and (2) develop intelligence regarding how to achieve a proper balance between the continued rate of extraction due to population growth, the duration of the use cycles in the circular economy to satisfy the needs of the global population, and the net decrease in available natural capital on Earth. Therefore, the development of an “Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy” is vital to finding a long-term solution.
In other words, the new economic model should not only be regenerative and circular by design, but also intelligently balanced with ecosystem processes. The Circular Economy system needs to consider that, although you may have managed to mimic the regenerative capacity of nature, this still will need to be done in line or pace with the regenerative capacity of the earth’s ecosystem processes, as these continue to provide the basic life support needs, such as oxygen, water, energy, food, and other resources to allow human beings to thrive on the planet.
ASDF believes that an “Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy” is entirely compatible with the concept of Sustainable Development and considers it a suitable framework to allow for a systemic societal paradigm shift toward an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economic model that is better aligned to nature’s rules and fundamentals.
While having a long-term strategic vision based on an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy is necessary, even more so is the need for a concrete pragmatic mechanism to realize this long-term vision. Therefore, ASDF has established a formal alliance with MBDC, the developers of the Cradle-to-Cradle® design framework, and has specialized and built up its in-house capacity to properly integrate the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles as the basis for all its interventions and implementation of its projects and initiatives to transition to an Eco-Intelligent Circular Economy.
In conclusion, ASDF’s strategic development plan to realizing sustainable development, is to continue to allocate its accumulated knowledge, efforts, skills, and resources to bringing about innovative and practical solutions to address concrete air, water, energy, food, and material problems and challenges inspired by the Cradle-to-Cradle® design principles to facilitate the transition toward Eco-Intelligent Circular Economies in the Americas. Moving forward, we must recognize that the Economy is subject to the Society, and that the Society is in turn dependent on the Ecology that provides the basic life support to allow for the human being to survive and thrive on planet Earth.
For more information please visit www.sustainableamericas.com.
Author: Ing. Kevin de Cuba, MSc
Kevin de Cuba is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF). Over the past 9 years he has specialized in the topics of Cradle-to-Cradle® and Circular Economy and has been a pioneer in creating awareness, capacity building and triggering action in Latin America and the Caribbean regarding these topics. Mr. de Cuba has a bachelor degree in Environmental Technology Engineering, with specialization in Waste Management, obtained from the Technical University of VanHall-Larenstein (VHL) and has a MSc. Degree in Sustainable Development, with specialization in Energy and Materials, from the Copernicus Institute at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands.