Moving towards The Circular Economy
The only way forward
While the ‘circular economy’ as a concept emerged in the 1970s, it gained wider awareness when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was set up by Dame Ellen MacArthur in 2009. Probably best known for making yachting history in 2005 when she became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe, Ellen set up the foundation after becoming acutely aware of the finite nature of the resources our linear economy relies upon. The website remains a leading source for everything on and about the circular economy. Interestingly, it was China who was most enthusiastic in embracing this concept by introducing its circular economy Promotion Lawin 2009.
The graphic created by the Ellen MacArthur foundation below captures the principles of the circular economy which are,
The three principles of the circular economy are:
Design out waste and pollution
Keep materials and products in use
Regenerate natural systems
The closer the circle is to the user (on the right hand side of the graphic), the better the solution. So, recycling is the last resort – all recycling does is extend the time before a product eventually ends up in a landfill. The goal of the circular economy is that everything is either a technical nutrient that goes back into the system or a biological nutrient that goes back into the soil. One powerful tool for achieving a circular economy is the Sharing Economy, an economic model defined as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services that is often facilitated by a community-based on-line platform.
It’s perhaps fair to say though that the concept has only really taken hold in the public imagination in recent years as consumers around the world have demanded not only good quality and affordable products but sustainable ones too. This shift reached its nadir in 2017 when British conservationist Sir David Attenborough used the Blue Planet II television series to highlight the enormous damage plastic packaging was doing to marine life around the world.
He issued a clarion call that was rapidly met by coordinated action, with China announcing plans to ban the import of foreign recyclable material, the European Union developing a plastics strategy, and corporations around the world joining forces with entrepreneurs and social enterprises via initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact and the French Roadmap on the Circular Economy.
Despite the enormous publicity and awareness that was raised by the program, however, researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford suggest that it did little in actually driving meaningful behavior change. Instead, the researchers believe that the increased understanding of the issues surrounding marine conservation was not reflected in people’s preference for plastic.
“The findings from our experiment are counter to the popular idea that Blue Planet II reduced viewers’ preference for plastic, instead demonstrating that human behaviours are complex and determined by more than just knowledge,” the researchers explain.
Research from the University of East Anglia highlights how important our peers are in driving lasting change, which in their case meant encouraging people to conserve water. Much of our social identities are wrapped up in a place or group of people. These identities have a profound impact on our attitudes and behaviors. Behavioral economics suggests that awareness of how others in our social group behave can therefore have a big impact on our own behavior.
“Traditionally, water conservation communication campaigns deliver general water saving information. However, campaigns informed by behavioural science can increase their effectiveness and should form an integral part of demand reduction strategies,” the authors explain. “Activating a sense of regional identity, such as a local city, neighbourhood or community, and communicating credible information about the behaviour and practices of other group members should strengthen perceived norms regarding water conservation, resulting in increased water-savings efforts among community members.”
The last few years have seen approaches such as behavioral economics married with technology-driven gamification to drive tangible behavior change in a wide range of domains, not least in areas such as recycling and energy conservation.
For instance, waste startup Recyclebank has shown what can be achieved with its social and gamified approach. They fitted recycling bins with RFID chips to weigh the amount of recyclable waste users generated each week. This was then converted into points that could be converted into rewards from retailers.
These points, which are analogous to frequent flyer points from an airline or loyalty points from a grocery store, proved effective at changing user behavior, with one community in Bridgeport, Connecticut citing a 67% increase in recycling rates over a two-year period after adopting the Recyclebank awards scheme.
Similar results have been achieved by energy startup oPower, which applied a gamified approach to encouraging people to use less energy. The company, who has subsequently been acquired by software company Oracle, works with utility companies to provide households with data on how much energy they are consuming, how they compare with neighbors, and if they are close to any new milestones. This has had a tangible impact, with users reporting a 2% fall in energy usage, whilst it may not sound much if it could be scaled up would equate to the equivalent of keeping 100,000 cars off the road.
A close cousin to using gamification as a driver of behavioural change is something called Fun Theory. Back in 2009 Volkswagen commissioned Stockholm-based advertising agency DDB to develop a campaign to find out if making the world more fun could improve people’s behaviour. Check out the video below.