Uncle Billy and the Circular Economy

Uncle Billy got it.

He was a child of the Depression, and understood the value of, well, pretty much everything. As kids we were fascinated by Billy’s unending ingenuity, his ability to design and build boats from beer crates, catapults from coat hangers, and 3-kiloton nuclear warheads from soda bottles (he also had a way with words).

Billy grew his own fruit and vegetables, harvested his own honey, and developed a barter system with the local butcher and baker who both swore that his garden fare was superior to anything they could buy from the greengrocer two doors down (although it should be noted that there was a long-standing feud between the three tradesmen, on which Billy tended to capitalise). He was particularly proud of his ‘matchstick masterpiece’, a 15-foot scale model of a Royal Navy corvette made entirely from used matches, kept in the loft and surrounded by hundreds of glass jars filled with decades of discarded, but not abandoned, detritus. Billy would surely recognise today’s ‘life hackers’ as brothers-in-arms, and if he were alive would no doubt be earning six figures as a Youtube sensation, Liverpool’s own answer to Taras Kulakov, the Crazy Russian Hacker.

It seems there’s nothing new under the sun. Uncle Billy’s mantra of ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’ has itself been refashioned in recent years to the more pithy, albeit less cheery, ‘Reduce. Reuse. Recycle’. No doubt Billy would be driven to the point of psychosis, however, by today’s profligate use of natural resources in a throwaway culture. Consider the following from kids’ information site Fact Monster:

“Every year, Americans throw away 50 billion food and drink cans, 27 billion glass bottles and jars, and 65 million plastic and metal jar and can covers. More than 30% of our waste is packaging materials. Where does it all go? Some 85% of our garbage is sent to a dump, or landfill, where it can take from 100 to 400 years for things like cloth and aluminum to decompose. Glass has been found in perfect condition after 4,000 years in the earth! We are quickly running out of space. It’s time to learn the three R’s of the environment: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Then practice what you preach: don’t buy things you don’t need or items that come in wasteful packaging or that cannot be recycled.”

It’s true that future generations will no doubt marvel at the madness of a society where precious resources are mined, shaped, ‘consumed’ (in the case of packaging, for example, often within minutes of purchase) and disposed of with casual thoughtlessness, all at great cost (and not only in financial terms). Estimates are that in the next 5 years the UK will run out of landfill space, and no doubt another popular phrase of my parents’ generation will take on new meaning: ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass’. Waste valorisation, the process of reusing, recycling, or composting from wastes, useful products, or sources of energy, will become a major industry in its own right. We may even see landfill sites reopened to become ‘waste mines’, with new technologies extracting value from the accrued layers of decades’ worth of cast-offs.

Even so, Billy’s repurposed philosophy of ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ will only, unfortunately, take us so far; logic tells us that in the end such a strategy is still limited. In their book ‘Cradle to Cradle’, Michael Braungart and William McDonough make the observation that ‘more control’ (being ‘less bad’) is not the same as being ‘good’:

“It is not protecting your child if you beat him three times instead of five, and it is not protecting the environment simply to use your car less often”.

And we see the seeds of that fallacy in the Fact Monster advice above. If we’re considering timescales such as the 4,000 years, above, what does it matter that 25 billion drink cans are thrown away over two years instead of 50 billion over one year? And how feasible is it for the consumer to avoid products that come in wasteful packaging (how much is ‘wasteful’?), or determine whether packaging is recyclable or not?

Unlike Billy, though, we have the advantage of seeing a little further ahead than he was able. Although coined in the 1970s, the terms ‘circular economy’ and ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (C2C) have entered the popular lexicon only in recent years, and bring with them a tremendously powerful and exciting set of concepts. In short, the ‘circular economy’ is a generic term for an industrial economy that is producing no waste and pollution, by design or intention. C2C seeks to create design and production techniques that are not just efficient but are essentially waste free. All material inputs and outputs are seen either as technical or biological nutrients; technical nutrients can be recycled or reused with no loss of quality, and biological nutrients composted or consumed. The traditional supplier-manufacturer relationship will fade as constraints on natural resources force businesses to look at their products’ entire lifecycle to find cost savings or the development of new revenue streams, or both.

Braungart and McDonough give a number of examples (and there are many to choose from) of C2C. One is a shoe, where the sole might be made of ‘biological nutrients’ while the upper parts might be made of ‘technical nutrients.’ The shoe is mass-produced at a manufacturing plant that uses off-cuts from the rubber soles to make more soles instead of merely disposing of them. Customers buy the shoe at a fraction of the price they would normally pay; the customer is only paying for the use of the materials in the shoe for the period of time that they will be using the shoe. When they outgrow the shoe or it is damaged, they return it to the manufacturer who then separates the sole from the upper parts (separating the technical and biological nutrients). The biological nutrients are returned to the natural environment, while the technical nutrients are used to create the sole of another shoe.

Another example is a disposable cup, bottle, or wrapper made entirely out of biological materials. When the user is finished with the item, it can be disposed of and returned to the natural environment; the cost of disposal of waste such as landfill and recycling is eliminated. The user could also potentially return the item for a refund so it can be used again.

The intriguing thing about the C2C message is that it is much more upbeat than we are used to hearing from the environmental movement. All too often the environmental message can be strident and depressing: stop being so bad, so materialistic, so greedy. Do whatever you can, no matter how inconvenient, to limit your consumption. Buy less, spend less, drive less, have fewer children — or none. But C2C appears to suggest we can have our cake and eat it. In a resource constrained and finite world, can we still enjoy the attractions of fast fashion? Can manufacturers still benefit from the strategies of built-in obsolescence? Well, possibly.

There’s no suggestion in the cradle-to-cradle school of thought that we’re destined to live monastic lives, or that the future is anything less than abundant. However, C2C does require that we rethink our current ways and means with an eye to the future. Redesigning products and manufacturing processes, taking into account, as McDonough and Braungart state, “all children, of all species, for all time”, is a tremendously powerful idea and will, itself, be the springboard to new industries and new wealth creation.

A massive challenge, it is true, but most certainly achievable. Billy would approve.

[Chris is Director of Resilient.World (, and has over twenty years’ experience managing social and environmental programs for the supply chains of national and multi-national Fortune 500 companies in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia.]