What Is Circular Economy and How Can Hemp Be a Part of It?

Our present make-take-dispose approach to production and consumption contributed to about 50% of global CO2 emissions in 2019. The plastic, textile, food, electronics, and other waste resulting from this production-consumption cycle is dilapidating environmental and human health.

Circular Economy promotes the elimination of waste and sustainable use of natural resources, offering an alternative cycle of production and consumption that can yield up to $4.5 trillion in economic benefits to 2030.


What is Circular Economy?

Circular Economy (CE) is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible, with the aim of extending the life cycle of products.

Circular economy aims to address global challenges such as climate change, waste, biodiversity loss, and pollution by reducing waste to a minimum. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are retained within the economy, wherever possible, and can be productively used again and again, creating further value.

Circular Economy departs from the traditional linear model of economy which is based on the make-take-consume-dispose pattern. The linear economic model relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy and designs products to have a limited lifespan to encourage consumers to buy it again.

The circular economy model, however, is based on a take-make-use-reuse model which creates a closed-loop system, reducing the use of raw materials as well as the creation of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.

CE aims to keep materials, equipment, products, and infrastructure in use for longer.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines circular economy as an industrial economy that is restorative or regenerative by value and design.

“In our current economy, we take materials from Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste—the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste from being produced in the first place.


Circular Economy vs Waste Management

While circular economy may appear to be a rebranded waste management, it is actually much more. CE focuses on looking at a system as a whole and identifying the core connection between all the steps of a supply chain.

Waste management focuses on the final stage of a product, whereas circular economy looks across the lifecycle and very crucially includes the design of the product. CE is about redesigning entire systems to be more efficient so that ultimately, in the most ideal case scenario, there is no ‘waste’.

Circular Economy also goes beyond recycling. It essentially requires an organisation to fundamentally rethink its relationships with suppliers and consumers. This process may involve accessing new skills and developing new incentives in order to retain and regenerate value by re-circulating materials within the system and avoiding waste as much as possible.


Principles of Circular Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation base the circular economy on three design-driven principles.


1. Eliminating Waste & Pollution: Though it may sometimes seem like waste is inevitable in certain situations, waste is actually the result of design choices. For instance, a packet of chips is designed to be disposable. It cannot be reused, recycled, or composted which is why it ends up as waste. In products like these, ‘waste’ is built-in.

Circular economy defines design specifications in a way that allows materials to re-enter the economy at the end of their use. This automatically transforms the linear take-make-waste system into a circular one.

By maintaining, sharing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling, many products can be circulated.

Apeel, a US-based company, has developed a rather innovative way of eliminating single-use shrink wrap plastic packaging on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Apeel is an edible, plant-based coating that is layered on to fresh products. It duplicates and enhances the natural defence mechanism of fruits and vegetables, slowing down water loss and oxidation—two main things that cause spoilage of these products.

Fruits and vegetables treated with Apeel stay fresh 2-3 times longer without plastic packaging.

Another excellent example of design change comes from DyeCoo, a textile company that has developed a technology for dying textiles without the use of water, thereby eliminating toxic wastewater. Instead of water, the company uses CO2 as a solvent in a closed-loop system.

A DyeCoo machine can process 800 tons of polyester per year, saving approximately 32 million litres of water, avoiding the use of 160 tons of chemicals, and completely eliminating the release of wastewater into the natural environment.


2. Circulating Products & Materials: the second principle focuses on keeping materials in use, either as a product or as components or raw materials. To implement this, thinking of the technical and biological cycles is fundamental.

In the technical cycle, products are reused, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled. The most efficient way of retaining the value of products is to maintain and reuse them. Let’s take a mobile phone as an example. Since the first steps in the technical cycle are focused on keeping products whole to retain the maximum possible value, business models based on sharing can be implemented.

In these models, users get access to a product rather than owning it and more people get to use it over time. It could also involve reuse through resale as well as cycles of maintenance, repair, and refurbishment.

When the product does reach its end stage, its components can be remanufactured. Parts that cannot be remanufactured can be broken down into their constituent materials and recycled accordingly.

The Danish clothing company VIGGA is redefining fashion consumption by sharing and circulating high-quality products. The brand runs on a subscription model and offers properly-produced, high-quality children’s clothes at affordable prices.

  • For a monthly subscription fee, the customers get 20 pieces of clothes in their child’s size.
  • When the kids outgrow these clothes, they are replaced by new sets of clothes in a bigger size.
  • After inspecting for quality, the returned clothes are washed professionally and delivered to another baby, resulting in a circular process.

The proper implementation of this process can reduce textile waste by 70-85%.

In the biological cycle, biodegradable materials are returned to the earth through processes such as composting and anaerobic digestion. These processes allow valuable nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, micronutrients, and potassium to regenerate the land to make it suitable for growing more food or renewable materials such as wood or cotton.

New York-based Ecovative uses agricultural by-products and mushroom roots to create compostable packaging that works like expanded polystyrene and protects fragile items in transit. However, it is a renewable source and does not contribute to plastic waste.


3. Regenerating Nature: This principle shifts the focus from extraction to regeneration of natural resources. Instead of continuously degrading nature, it proposes building natural capital. For instance, employing farming practices that allow nature to rebuild soils, increase biodiversity, and return biological materials to earth.

This principle could particularly be utilised in the food industry. The present-day food production system relies heavily on synthetic fertilisers, fossil fuels, pesticides, fresh water, and other finite resources.

Producing food regeneratively focuses on improving soil health. By reducing the dependency on synthetic inputs, regenerative farming practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build healthy soils that absorb carbon rather than release it.

In addition to restoring the natural carbon cycle, healthy soils have a better capability to

  1. hold water which reduces the impact of droughts 
  2. absorb water which reduces the risk of flooding

Moving on from the food system, keeping products and materials in use also decreases the amount of land required for sourcing virgin raw materials. The gradual adoption of this process can result in more and more land being returned to nature.

Connect the Dots, a city-led initiative to promote local regenerative agriculture in the rural zone of São Paulo is an implementation of this system. The project focuses on protecting the natural systems threatened by conventional agricultural practices and urban sprawl.

The municipality purchases the food produced from these practices and offers it to vulnerable people at 30% more than market value. This serves as an incentive for farmers to continue the adoption of regenerative practices.


Challenges Standing in the Way of a Circular Economy

Meeting the requirements of a true, circular economy isn’t easy. Currently, only 8.6% of the world is circular. Achieving the transition from a linear to circular economy is a long and winding road with many potholes along the way.

Controlling the Cycles Efficiently

Product designers are not waste managers. They don’t have any strong reasons to include end-of-life considerations in their products. As a result, most products are hard to disassemble and/or recycle.

CE model requires integrating the entire product life cycle—from the extraction of raw material to disposal (or reuse and recycle). There are two ways to achieve this—single ownership of the product chain and collaboration between companies.

Both these solutions have inherent disadvantages. If companies own the entire life cycle of products, they may, very easily, cross-subsidize different activities leading to inefficient production and high prices. Moreover, the upfront costs of this process may be too high for newcomers. Similarly, collaborations may lead to cartel-like behaviour.


Resilience in Connected Industries

It isn’t always possible to keep the resource loop within one industry. Many industries will see their waste as a resource for other industries. Linking up these industries will create a complex interdependence, leaving the system highly vulnerable to disruptions.

Nature is, quite ironically, the best example to understand this. The huge complexity of ecosystems in nature means that a change in one variable can create a cascade of effects that will lead to the collapse of the entire system. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, etc. are all examples of this.

The impact of a similar crash in the financial or manufacturing industries for instance would be unpleasant at the very least.


Keeping the Environment at the Centre

The most rudiment focus of the circular economy model is to reduce the harm to the environment. But what is the exact relationship between circularity that maximizes profits and circularity that minimizes environmental harm?

The implementation of a circular economy needs policies that focus at achieving both economic growth and reduced environmental impacts.


Surpassing Consumer’s Convenience Expectations

A properly functioning CE does not only depend on the government and industry. Consumers, too, have a role to play. And a very important one at that.

Consumers have grown accustomed to easy, convenient things. And that has become their choice. Let’s take disposable plastic as an example. We are so used to its flexibility and impermeable qualities that it would be too difficult to let go of.

Let’s imagine a mineral water brand wishes to change its packaging into an eco-friendlier material. Paper cartons may be an option—lightweight just like plastic bottles. But they’re vulnerable to contact with solution or water. So, no. Glass bottles may be another alternative but they’ll get too heavy for a bigger size.

For each advantage of a plastic bottle that the brand lets go of, the consumer is more likely to pick a simpler choice instead: a competitor’s products with disposable plastic packaging.

However, brands may be able to influence the purchase behaviour of consumers towards products that are sustainable and support circularity in one way or another.

An interesting research from Getty Images revealed that, “people place high values on themselves, their family, and the Earth, but the intention does not always necessarily translate into action…This presents a unique opportunity for brands to engage and assist consumers in bridging the gap between intention and action.”

Their innovation, Visual GPS, explores the way consumers are influenced by factors of technology, sustainability, realness, and wellness and the way in which brands can use authentic visuals to respond to consumers’ concerns.

In the case of the food and beverage sector,  a report by FutureBrand analyses a series of macro-trends that companies can adopt to lessen environmental damage without compromising on consumers’ needs and convenience.


Lack of Proper Waste Management Infrastructure

Without the proper human resources and facilities to run it, regulations are just words. Approximately one-third of plastics are not collected by a waste management system but end up as litter on lands and in rivers and oceans.

More than 50% of plastic litter comes from China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. What’s going to happen if there aren’t enough plastic treatment facilities to make sure that the materials are ready to be used again?


How Do We Overcome the Barriers?

Hemp as an Incubator of Circular Economy

While the challenges to adopting circular economy are many, there is one potential solution that can help us get started in the right direction—Industrial hemp.

Consider the following uses of hemp:

  • The seeds of the plant are a valuable source of food containing all of the essential protein, amino acids, carbs, minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids (including GLA) present in a perfect ratio.
  • Oil pressed from hemp seeds serves threefold functions—nutrition, personal care, and zero-carbon fuel source.
  • Fibre taken from hemp stalks is strong, waterproof, durable, and antibacterial. The plant grows in 1/4th the amount of water required by cotton and nearly zero pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
  • The hurd of the plant is 70% cellulose and can be used to make hempcrete which is ecological, strong, fireproof, and absorbs tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • This hurd can also be used to make paper, cellophane, ethanol, etc.
  • The dust waste from the processing of the plant makes biogas which can offset natural gas.
  • Hemp can be used to make plastic that biodegrades within  6 months of disposal.

Industrial hemp appears to be well-equipped to both demonstrate circularity and incubate a circular economy—across different industries. The Heartland model of circular economy for local manufacturing is an example to be studied, analysed, and implemented with due changes.

The model acknowledges the heavy reliance of companies on raw material supply chains such as plastic, rubber, metal, wood, cement, ceramic, etc. in order to produce the good they sell to the world, and focuses on creating an industrial hemp supply chain to specifically create hemp additives which solve one of the biggest problems in the plastic industry.

Understanding the core of this model and tailoring it to address the issues of different industries can serve as a starting point toward establishing a properly working circular economy.

Apurva Sheel
Apurva Sheel
Apurva Sheel is a communications consultant with 3 years of experience in the Indian cannabis industry. Her thoughts and opinions find expression in writing.

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