A circular economy is a model of production and consumption that focuses on sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for the longest possible time in order to reduce waste to a minimum.
Circular economy can take different shapes in different industries, owing to their unique characteristics. Let us understand today what circular economy can look like in 4 major industries:
A circular economy within the textile industry refers to the practice of clothes and fibres continually being recycled and re-entering the economy as much as possible instead of ending up as waste.
The currently prevalent linear model of the fashion industry “not only leads to an economic value loss of over $500 billion per year but also has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts.” Tons of clothing ends up in landfills and incineration and the inhumane working conditions put human rights at risk.
A fashion documentary called The True Cost (2015) explained that in fast fashion,
“wages, unsafe working conditions, and factory disasters are all excused because of the needed jobs they create for people with no alternatives.”
Experts argue that a circular economy model can transform the textile industry into a sustainable business. A 2017 report titled A New Textiles Economy listed four key aims that can help establish a circular economy.
1. Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release.
A new textile economy needs to ensure the use of a safe and healthy input material that allows cycling and avoids negative impacts during the phases of production, use, and after-use.
Eliminating substances of concern is needed to:
- Facilitate large-scale recycling
- Avoid various negative impacts at all stages of the value chain
While some substances of concern can be phased-out quickly, some such as dyes and additives call for innovative input and production processes. The textile company DyeCoo has developed a technology for dyeing textiles with CO2 instead of water, thus eliminating toxic wastewater that gets released into the natural environment.
Another essential requirement is designing new material and production processes that drastically reduce the number of plastic microfibres shed by clothing and developing technologies that can capture those that do still shed.
2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature
Waste and pollution in the textile systems can be designed out by increasing the average number of times clothes are worn. This calls for designing and producing clothes of higher quality and employing new business models to provide access to them.
The transition towards this model can be sped up by 3 ways:
- Scaling up short-term clothing rental.
- Making durability more attractive.
- Increasing clothing utilisation through brand commitments and policy.
3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing.
A radical improvisation in the recycling process within the textile industry can help capture the value of the materials in clothes that can no longer be used.
This ambition can be accomplished by taking the following demand and supply measures:
- Align clothing design and recycling processes.
- Pursue technological innovation to improve the economics and quality of recycling.
- Stimulate demand for recycled materials.
- Implement clothing collection at sale.
4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
Higher clothing utilisation and increased recycling will radically reduce the need for new material inputs. In cases where virgin material input is required and no recycled material can be used, sourcing should be done from renewable resources.
This can include using renewable feedstock for plastic-based fibres and regenerative agriculture to produce any renewable resources. Transition to more effective production processes—that generate less waste, need fewer inputs of resources, reduce water use, are energy efficient, and run on renewable energy—can also reduce the need for non-renewable resource input.
Popular Circular Initiatives
Eileen Fisher’s Tiny Factory is a wonderful example of a circular economy within the fashion world. The brand encourages customers to bring their worn clothing for manufacturing and reselling.
Clothing Rental start-ups are also gaining more and more traction. Rental services offer everyday fashion, maternity wear, and baby wear for rent. While some offer flexible pricing in a ‘pay as you rent’ model, others like Rent the Runway or Le Tote work on fixed monthly subscriptions.
Take-back programs like the one run by Circular Threads repurpose post-consumer waste materials (e.g., denim jeans, retiring climbing rope, etc.) into new products, allowing consumers to return any product at any time so that it can be recycled again.
In India, I was a Sari is a social enterprise that upcycles pre-loved saris and other materials into new aesthetic and functional apparels, accessories, and jewellery. Liffafa is another platform collects discarded polythene bags from landfills and turns them into fabric which is further used to manufacture products such as handbags, wallets, and laptop sleeves.
Twirl Store is a Kolkata-based start-up that redeems customers who send their unwanted clothes with points that can be used to buy new things from the brand’s online portal. The brand either donates or upcycles the collection it receives.
The construction industry is among the largest users of energy contributing to 38% of CO2 emissions and 30% of natural resource extraction globally. Making a shift towards a circular economy will not just reduce the ecological footprint of the industry but also benefit the local economy by encouraging sustainable production models.
1. Reuse of local excavated earth to make eco-friendly building material.
Excavation sites are a common source of pollution and resource waste. More often than not, the excavated earth and mining waste ends up as dump in mines, quarries, and artificial mountains—a practice that contributes to unessential transport, air pollution, and carbon emissions.
BC Materials, a Spanish research centre, is working towards tackling this problem by collaborating with architects, construction firms, and transporters to recover and reclaim the excessive earth. The centre then recycles this earth into construction materials such as clay plasters, compressed earth blocks, and rammed earth, which are then sold directly to building companies and general and trade contractors.
2. Construction equipment reusability.
In the face of climate emergencies and resource scarcity, innovative solutions that directly reuse or repurpose materials and equipment are taking birth.
Ventures like Cycle Up and Waste Marketplace offer services that link the supply and demand of construction waste. Construction firms like Backacia leases equipment at competitive prices thus reducing construction waste.
3. Adoption of cradle-to-cradle approach.
The brainchild of Micheal Braungart, a process engineer, and William McDonough, an architect, the cradle-to-cradle approach involves selecting construction materials that can go through infinite life cycles.
The linear cradle-to-grave process wastes energy and natural resources while destroying habitats. The circular cradle-to-cradle process ensures that the natural habitats are least disturbed and natural resources are fed with waste materials to regrow.
Desso, a flooring company in the Netherlands, is one of the pioneers of this approach. The brand adopts circular economy principles through their take-back programs and products with recyclable yarn which can be used over and over. The brand is also using corn by-products and bamboo yarn to develop biodegradable material bases for their carpets.
4. Upcycling plastic: the circular economy visualizes a closed loop for plastics like beverage containers, jars, and consumer packaging. The heterogeneity of plastic waste makes it difficult for the construction industry to recycle and reuse it.
However, start-ups such as Arqlite are working on recycling plastic packaging waste into Smart Gravel, a durable insulator, that the construction industry can employ in its practices.
5. Customizable modular units: modular construction allows customers and contractors to put together prefabricated parts (of a building/structure) and reduce waste and carbon footprint. Bao Living, a Belgian start-up, for instance, manufactures Smart Adaptable Modules for affordable and sustainable residential construction.
Popular Circular Initiatives in India
A number of Indian start-ups are developing innovative products by recycling different forms of waste into building materials that are efficient, affordable, and environment-friendly.
Udaipur-based Angirus, for instance, uses construction, demolition, and plastic waste to make eco-friendly bricks that provide an effective and sustainable alternative to clay bricks.
Recycle X from Gujarat uses all types of plastic waste to make construction materials such as Solid blocks, Paver blocks, Tiles, Hollow blocks, etc.
GreenJams is another start-up utilising crop residues such as cotton stalks, paddy straws, and bagasse to create carbon-negative building materials. The brand claims that their product Agrocrete can reduce the cost of construction by up to 50% while improving the energy efficiency of a building by up to 25%.
Rajasthan-based Hexpressions is using composite paper honeycomb panels to create recyclable homes. These panels have the capacity to replace traditional construction materials, lower the carbon footprint, reduce the construction time, and increase the affordability and eco-friendliness of a building.
The logistics industry plays a crucial role in the circular economy. If a circular economy is to become the future, the logistics sector will have to take on the responsibility to streamline some of the most important tasks across the supply chain.
EY has presented a Circular Supply Chain Model that, “closes the cycle from the consumer to the sub-supplier, has been expanded to include new activities such as collection and processing and includes microcirculation between the individual value creation stages.”
The 2019 Logistics in a Circular Economy report by the LogiCE platform outlines 5 key roles of the logistics sector in a circular economy:
1. Chain Management: The act of efficiently linking supply and demand by logistics service providers can close the existing linear cycles and introduce synergy between different chain links.
2. Collaborative Logistics: Cooperation between logistics parties makes it possible to achieve an efficient and sustainable circular economy. Sharing loading capacity in trucks, for instance, can ensure that no trucks are running below capacity and that fewer trucks are needed, thus reducing CO2 emissions.
3. Synchro-modality: synchro-modality refers to designing a system that connects the routes of trucks, trains, boats, cars, bicycles, etc. Being able to change means of transport efficiently is an important aspect of a sustainable, synchronized logistics chain.
For example, a synchronised mobile distribution system for the delivery of parcels can look like: a truck taking parcels to a residential area, where they park at a central location, from where the delivery persons take them to the front doors on a bicycle.
4. Data Infrastructure: an advanced data infrastructure, one that can provide real-time tracking and overview, is crucial to enable collaborative logistics and synchro-modality. Not only will these introduce transparency in the supply chain but also enable smooth and efficient management of disruptions.
5. Sharing Economics: Sharing of (more) expensive products by privates and businesses is another important contributing factor to circular economy. While this is easily achievable in small neighbourhoods and apartment complexes, we still need efficient structure when it comes to sharing heavy machinery.
The implementation of circular economy concepts presents possibilities of gaining economic value from many by-products in the agri-food industry. Agricultural waste can be turned into bio-products such as fertilizers and energy.
Reducing and converting agri-food waste into new materials/products that instil the principles of reuse, repair, and recycling could help economies by generating a stream of profit and, in the long term, by reducing environmental damage.
The supply chain in the agri-food industry has many characteristics that make it different from other industries. Time constraints in almost all stages of the supply chain generate wastes of different kinds.
The existence of such wastes actually presents economic and environmental opportunities in which the agri-food industry can benefit from a circular economy model.
Economically, there is a possibility of producing biomass and biofuel and organic fertilizer from animal digestion and manure respectively.
Environmentally, circular economy concepts can decrease CO2 emissions while enriching soil fertility.
Organic waste from farming has long been a source of fertiliser for agriculture. Biological waste like crop stalks, leaves and pods, animal waste etc. can be converted into fertilisers rich in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, etc., reducing the cost and demand for synthetic fertilisers.
Circular Agricultural Practices
Circular economy concepts in agriculture refer to designing all steps of the food system from growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food with the aim of promoting sustainable development.
Agricultural practices such as mixed crop-livestock, organic farming, agroforestry, water recycling, and wastewater reuse are key elements of a circular agricultural model.
Popular Circular Initiatives
Within the food and beverage value chain, collaborations such as the one between In The Welsh Wind, Bluestone Brewing Company, and Orkney Craft Vinegar, that converted 3000 litres of beer bound for the landfill into vinegar are good examples of circular models in practice.
The Australian GoTerra is using insects to process food waste into protein and fertiliser. The former can be used in pet food and fish and livestock feed while the latter is a nutrient-rich source for improving soil quality and resilience.
In terms of agricultural practices, a brilliant example comes from a farm in Uganda which has developed a small-scale mixed farming system wherein a range of livestock and plants are grown in the farm. The waste products are shared and reused within the system to provide fertilisers, pesticides, and energy.
The waste from livestock is fed to maggots which can further be used as feed for fish and other animals. The waste from insects and nutrient-rich wastewater from the aquaculture system is used to fertilise and irrigate crops.
The Indian state of Sikkim is the world’s first fully organic state having spent 13 years to convert 75k hectares of land to organic agriculture—a transition that has benefited more than 66,000 families and increased farmers’ income by 20%.
Is There a Place for Industrial Hemp?
As discussed in a previous article, industrial hemp can be used for the initial implementation of circular economy concepts across industries.
Hemp fabric makes it possible to produce high-quality, durable clothing—something brands need to focus on in order to truly implement circular economy. Moreover, growing hemp is much more sustainable and environment-friendly than cotton given that it uses 1/4th the amount of water and nearly zero pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.
Experts estimate that one hectare of hemp can produce 3x more clothing in comparison to one hectare of cotton. Hemp fibres are stronger, more absorbent, and more durable than cotton fibres. They are also soft, versatile, breathable, lightweight, and anti-bacterial.
Because they’re made from an ecological, renewable, and recyclable resource (i.e., the hemp plant), hemp textiles are natural, bio-based, and biodegradable. Therefore, the disposal of hemp textiles is also more sustainable than other fabrics.
The use of a clay, hemp, and lime blend is what has kept the famous Ellora caves alive over centuries by regulating humidity and the attack of destructive insects. Hempcrete as a construction material has remarkable preservation capacity. It has high breathability and can store and release warm air.
Hempcrete is a bio-based insulation that not only contributes to building low-carbon buildings but also prevents said buildings from damage from moisture, pests, moulds, and fire. In fact, hempcrete can prove to be the perfect building material for climatically diverse countries such as India.
There does not seem to be a direct relation between hemp and the logistics industry. However, the use of hemp biofuel can help add further efficiency to the industry. Biofuel made from pressed hemp seeds can be used in any conventional diesel engine.
A 2010 study from the University of Connecticut showed that hemp oil has a 97% conversion rate to diesel. Even though it takes about 50% more biofuel to generate the same energy as that produced by petroleum, hemp fuel is a renewable alternative that does not harm the environment.
Hemp seeds in themselves are a valuable source of nutrition containing all of the essential protein, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, dietary fibre, and essential fatty acids in the perfect ratio. The oil pressed from hemp seeds can be used as a nutritional, personal care, and zero-carbon fuel source.
Moulding hemp into biodegradable plastic is another way in which the food and beverage industry can introduce circular concepts.
As an agricultural commodity, hemp has less reliance on pesticides. This has twofold advantages:
- The need for synthetic pesticides is eliminated.
- Hemp plantations can become havens for pollinators.
The quick growth rate of hemp makes it an excellent ground cover crop. Hemp’s root reaches deep down into the soil and helps to hold the soil together, reduce erosion, and loosen the soil allowing more delicate plants to grow afterwards.
Additionally, hemp produces high quantities of biomass which decomposes back into the soil feeding the nutrients to the ground. The hemp plant can also be used for bioremediation since it can grow in contaminated soil and absorb heavy metals and toxins.