The circular economy has been on the rise for some time now. But it is struggling to defeat the pawn of classical, so-called linear economics. However, digital consumption patterns and our online lives are already giving substance to this concept.
Reuse, reuse and recycle: these are the basics of the circular economy. But how can this idea be put into practice? Point on the future of a rapidly evolving concept with Sebastian Bourdain, professor and researcher of economic geography at the E.M. Normandie School, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Caen.
What is a circular economy and where did this concept come from?
As defined by the Agency for Environmental Transition (ADEME), it is an economic system of exchange and production that, at all stages of a product’s life cycle, attempts to increase efficiency, reuse, recycle resources and reduce environmental impact.
This is one definition among others, but it sums up the basics of the thing well: an economy that operates on the principle of virtue and tries to abolish the concept of waste.
Is this virtuous concept opposed to the classical, so-called linear economy, or is it built in parallel?
In practice, the circular economy goes hand in hand. About 80% of our economy, with a bucket, has been working on the principle of a linear economy for thousands of years: we extract raw materials, produce, consume, throw away. This is the current model that still prevails today. Today, however, a new type of business and economic actor is emerging that sincerely question the environmental impact and recycling. This requires a circular economy of reuse, recycling and reuse. We call it “Three R’s”. On the ground, we see that things are moving very fast and that many organizations are trying to put in place strategies to talk about it and use round-robin methods.
What is the level of acceptance of the concept in French society today? We have the feeling that on the one hand there is scientific research, and on the other – the means of production.
This is a big question. As part of a research project, we conducted several interviews with companies and elected politicians to measure this level of acceptance. In particular, we wanted to know what prevents the creation of systems related to the circular economy. The companies mostly responded that they lacked skills and technical support. Specifically, we are talking about a circular economy, but we do not know how to do it. Today, new professions are emerging, for example, rudologist: a specialist in waste processing. These new jobs exist, but business leaders don’t know about it, or their employees don’t know how to do it.
In addition, there may be daunting economic costs of implementing a new strategy. In a territorial circular ecology approach, it is also necessary to bring companies together to create synergies. With regard to waste, the waste of one party may serve the activities of another party in the same area. But companies are not necessarily aware of this due to the lack of communication. Lack of knowledge about available resources.
In general, this is a methodological problem. Ademe has been offering a support system for creating such synergies at the territorial level for several years now.
What types of companies are using the circular economy today?
Companies like leboncoin have been successful there. If we take this example, it becomes clear that everyone wins from a social and environmental point of view.
If I want to throw away my coffee table, selling it to a private individual would instead allow it to become an economic resource. Whoever wants to buy it will make an economic profit from the new product. At the same time, there are production costs for this coffee table. Therefore, theoretically it is beneficial from an environmental point of view.
Now we see companies like BMW riding this wave. A recent commercial for the brand talks about the circular economy for 30 seconds, and concludes by announcing a car made from recycled materials. We can clearly see that even the auto industry, often singled out for its environmental impact, is trying to think differently about its business models.
Do you think there is awareness among the population about these issues? We use these sites, these services, without realizing that we are part of a circular economy.
You’re right. In addition, some approaches today qualify as a circular economy, although they have been around for a long time. We just put the word on the action. This applies to both recycling and repair. Prior to the Trente Glorieuses, the item repair culture was much more advanced. It disappeared until 2000-2010 to return.
You can bring a start-up Murfy, specializing in the repair of washing machines and household appliances. They offer to pay 85 euros – including travel and work – and refund if it is beyond repair. They claim that in 94% of cases the device is repairable. They then leave free tutorials for customers to identify bugs and fix them themselves. It is purely DIY. We are really breaking business models.
There is another aspect, even further upstream, and that is eco-design. From the first thoughts of a product, we will try to think about recycling it when it reaches the end of its life.
How would you define a “fair” and “positive” circular economy? What does the use of these two terms mean to you?
I think the circular economy is almost by definition fair and positive. Take the example of car sharing. In the circular economy, this is called the economy of functionality: we will not buy a product, but a function of it. In this case, a car. We maximize the use of an asset at a certain time with a win-win return. So for me, we live in a fair, positive economy. Shared economy.
Some of the platforms that today bring people together in a specific location to rent or lend things to each other are part of the circular economy. For example, the average use of a drill is 15 minutes in a lifetime. We spend 100 euros on an object that we will use for a total of a quarter of an hour. Why not rent your tool for a few euros a day to make the most of it and avoid new production?
From this point of view, it is indeed a fair and positive economy. Those who do not have the means to purchase can enjoy the goods, those who have them can maximize the use, etc. We also emphasize the environmental aspect, which I consider fundamental.