The headlines today announcing the deluge of social and environmental catastrophes are often paralyzing. We’re informed that our lifestyles — our eating habits, our shopping habits, our travel plans, almost everything we do is inextricably linked to these larger issues. And if you go into almost any metropolitan centre, it’s nearly impossible to stop participating in this linear economy — to buy, to consume, to throw away, and to start again. Spend a day in London and try not to purchase anything. Now that’s a challenge.
On some level we know consumption is a major part of what is driving the climate to new extremes. We are extracting and depleting resources at an epic pace, while losing biodiversity at alarmingly high rates. Our political systems — consider most recently the USA and Britain, are failing to provide viable solutions let alone push the conversation to consider the future of the planet. As consumers, we are often left feeling like the power of our wallets is one of the few tools we have to make an impact, and so choosing how to spend our money becomes, by extension, an effort to take control of the appalling state of the environment.
On any given day, I find myself having a tedious inner dialogue. Something along the lines of, ‘Where do you think they sourced this coffee for my latte? In fact, where’d the milk come from? I just threw away another damn cup, I always forget my to-go mug. Hmmm, how much petroleum do you think went into making my new trainers? Oh no, I forgot to check, was that tuna sustainably harvested? Wait, is this a plastic straw? — aren’t these killing turtles??? I want to order in dinner tonight but I can’t stand all those plastic containers… Do I really have to put these veg scraps in the trash? I wonder how much precious metal is in the broken phone sitting in my drawer? What types of mines did they come from?’
And it goes on and on and on…
This cycle of questioning is exhausting. I do take some comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one asking these questions. The plethora of ethical and local consumer initiatives make it clear that people are reflecting upon how products come to them. But improving a linear system can only go so far. The future lies in creating alternatives to the current system. Through reflecting and questioning the current consumption model, people have begun to present some exciting solutions.
FINDING WAYS TO RETHINK THE SYSTEM
Enter the Circular Economy. Wait, is this positive news?! Essentially, a circular economy challenges the modern linear model of consumption (using resources to make a product that we eventually throw out, never to be seen again). In a circular economy we close the loop so that inputs and outputs stay within the same system. Someone’s waste becomes another’s resource, and at the end of the day products aren’t made to end in a landfill but to have many iterations, transformations, and uses.
There are many organizations and companies in the UK raising awareness around how the circular economy can start to take the place of our horribly wasteful linear one. From grassroots movements such as Transition Network, where people have come together at the local level to take action and work collaboratively around many of today’s issues, to exciting non-profits such as Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)– helping to reduce and rethink waste, The Ellen McArthur Foundation– promoting the transition to a circular economy, and Forum for the Future– tackling sustainability on a variety of levels through a systems-thinking approach.
Let’s take, for example, the process of creating a circular food economy. The current industrial agricultural system is extraordinarily linear. It starts with heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers created from non-renewable sources, relies on pesticides and industrial processes resulting in mono crops, loss of top soil and damage to the surrounding ecosystems. Then, once a product has been harvested, only a certain percentage of it will be distributed– with imperfect fruits and vegetables being rejected along the way. When food finally arrives at the supermarket only a portion of it will be purchased, with strict and often erroneous sell by dates meaning food will be thrown into the dumpster. Once the customer does purchase a product, the average household fills their bins with around 30% food waste, whether it’s veg scraps or leftovers they forgot to eat. At each stage there are so many opportunities for using the so-called ‘waste’!
In an effort to transform this system people are seeing opportunity in ‘waste’, whether it’s in the form of coffee grinds, irregular carrots or potato peels. Thinking ‘zero-waste’ asks us to rethink what a product means to us, and what it means within the cycle of consumption. As an urban dweller, where space is scarce and we see endless products turn up on every street corner, it is imperative that we start to truly see the full cycle of a product.
Even within a circular food system, food waste is just one element of ‘closing the circle’, and apart from waste there are many other components to consider– from energy use, transport, labour, farming practices and much more. But waste is a powerful place to start because we all understand it and see it every day — all the time.
INVESTIGATING CIRCULAR INITIATIVES
In the next couple of posts I will investigate how people and businesses are tackling these issues, helping to energize the rest of us and inspire more circular habits. In London alone there are a wide range of businesses taking advantage of closing the loop. For example, Entocycle, is a start up in Bermondsey that is collecting food waste to feed to Black Soldier Flies, whose larvae is sold as a high-protein animal feed. Toast Ale, is a brewery using only surplus bread to brew beer, which also donates all the proceeds to Feedback, a London-based charity running campaigns to raise awareness around food waste. One of their methods is promoting Disco Soups — a volunteer-organized event that can feed hundreds from products that would have been tossed away. Fareshare sources food that that would have been discarded and redistributes it to charities, and FoodCycle uses surplus food to cook collaboratively — both are working to tackle food poverty.
A growing number of restaurants have pledged to be zero-waste, partnering with other businesses such as farms and urban growers who can use their waste and in turn provide local products. For instance, Bio Bean takes advantage of London’s coffee consumption, collecting coffee grounds from major coffee chains and independent retailers to transform into bio briquettes and pellets as alternative fuels. Not to mention small food businesses that were founded on the principle that you can create great products from ‘unfit’ fruit and veg — such as Rubies in the Rubble, making relishes and sauces solely from fruits that vendors are unable to sell in markets across London.
The list goes on, but it’s clear that principles of a circular economy are infiltrating the mainstream. In many situations they provide win-win opportunities giving businesses value in an otherwise unwanted product, raising awareness, and creating better business models by thinking about closing the loop.
In an era of bad news, it’s great to see initiatives like these catching people’s attention and providing new opportunities to transform our linear consumption habits. Stay tuned for upcoming profiles on circular initiatives…