MechChem Africa

The existing 'take-make-dispose' model of production and consumption is untenable. To halt the downward spiral of waste generation, it's time to rethink and redesign how we consume for a circular economy, says Aurecon's Tim Plenderleith.

Tim Plenderleith Global Market Director Manufacturing AureconWho ever said ‘happily ever after’ was just the stuff of fairytales? These days those words are written into the soles of Lionel Messi’s cleats. Or at least, that’s the idea. The ‘Sport Infinity’ range by sports-apparel company Adidas uses worn-out cleats and, by combining them with scrap materials from other industries, re-imagines them into high quality new shoes. “The football boots of the future could contain everything from carbon used in aircraft manufacturing to fibres of the boots that scored during the World Cup,” Adidas said in a statement. It’s called infinity recycling – one of the many good ideas wrought by circular economy thinking – and it may just be the Sunday game norm someday.

With three billion new middle-class consumers expected to enter global markets in the next 15 years, we can expect three billion more hungry appetites for the resources and infrastructure required to meet their lifestyle demands. Currently, our economy is run by a ‘take-make-dispose’ linear approach that generates a breathtaking amount of waste. According to Richard Girling’s book Rubbish!, 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing don’t even make it out the factory doors, while 80% of products made are thrown away within the first six months of their life cycle. The resource crunch is more like suffocation, with our incriminating fingerprints all over the planet’s throat. The extractive industry’s approach is unsustainable – raw materials are being depleted quicker than they can regenerate.

In the circular economy, products are not downgraded, as they are in recycling, but re-imagined to infuse the same, if not more, value back into the system. The circular economy may be a highly practical solution to our planet’s burgeoning woes. The idea behind a circular economy is to rethink and redesign the way we make stuff. Rather than ditching your worn-out old jeans, send them into the factory for recycling and upgrade to a new pair. Done with your old iPhone 5? Reconsider buying the Puzzlephone, which can be easily disassembled, repaired and upgraded over a ten-year lifespan. Basically, there’s no such thing as waste in a circular system – all waste bears the raw materials to become something else . By finding fresh, creative ways to use the same resources, a one-way death march to unsustainable collapse is inadvertently avoided.

Could we halt the downward spiral by using waste to solve the waste crisis? With McKinsey rolling out projections as high as $1-trillion to gain from a closed-loop economy, circularity seems to have our ‘thumbs up’ in principle. The truth is however, we are a far cry from adopting its practical reality in our design-distribution streams. So how will we get there? If the circular economy is indeed the way of the future, what needs to change now to usher it in? Could the circular economy define the end of the extractive industry as we know it?

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