In an ideal world, materials would be valued differently. Circularity would be commercially normal and profitable. Virgin materials and landfill would be prohibitively expensive. Transitioning businesses are bringing circularity into the lifecycle of the materials in their products and packaging, but solutions at scale demand knowledge, engagement, collaboration and investment across industries and value chains. 

4 min read | Last updated 4 December 2020

The infinity symbol within the icon for SDG 12 for responsible consumption and production articulates circularity as a solution to one of the world’s wickedest problems – the value of materials lost to waste.

More than 90% of produced material currently ends up in landfill where its value is completely lost (Circle Economy, 2020 (pdf)). But we don’t have to produce and consume in this linear way. If we were to deliberately set out to avoid destroying their value, we could use and re-use resources over and over again, if not infinitely.

There are two systems that can maintain the value of materials:

  • the biological system of natural regeneration in the biosphere
  • the technical system of recycling in the technosphere (ie industry)

There are three basic circular economy strategies:

  1. waste and pollution are designed out
  2. materials are kept in use
  3. natural systems are regenerated

A circular economy is one that is ‘regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles’.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

1. Designing Out Waste

“People think they are protecting the environment when they use less, but they are only destroying it less.”

A documentary about Cradle to Cradle design principles, 2016

Example: DyeCoo

DyeCoo has developed the world’s first water-free and chemical-free textile dying technology. It uses a closed loop system with supercritical CO2 as a dying medium. The CO2 is 95% recycled; 98% of the dye is absorbed by the textile; and because no water is used the textile doesn’t need to be dried, reducing time, energy and cost, and no chemicals-laden wastewater is produced.

Also, because the plant does not need to be near a water source, it can be located close to market, reducing logistics costs, emissions and lead times.

2. Keeping Materials In Use

“What if we could live in a world without waste, because waste doesn’t exist anymore.”

Virtually the full value of most materials could be retained if every used product were to be disposed of correctly and conveniently into a system that extracts its constituent materials and channels them to where they can be reused.

A documentary about a European initiative to improve food packaging circularity, 2017

Example: Renault

Renault was a founding partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010, and believes that a circular economy is one of the levers of transformation in the automotive industry.

Renault’s circular economy action plan has four parts:

  • develop mobility services that optimise the usage rate per vehicle, such as carpooling, car sharing, short term rentals, ride-hailing services and autonomous robot vehicles.
  • extend the life of products with the use of reuse parts in vehicle repair and the development of new services for second life electric batteries
  • increase the economic potential of the group’s circular activities
  • promote recycling and the circular economy with the creation and development of material loops and the increase in use of recycled materials in the production of vehicles

Renault has made a capital commitment to the circular economy through Renault Environment, a subsidiary that coordinates a large part of the company’s circular activities via three subsidiaries:

  • Indra recycles end of life vehicles (ELVs) to recover secondary raw materials for reuse in the production of new vehicles (eg copper from electrical wiring, catalytic converters and polypropylene bumpers) and spare parts for vehicle repairs in the post-sales network
  • Boone Conemor manages metal scrap, such as steel, copper and aluminum
  • Gaia buy materials from Indra, uses recyclers to recycle these materials, and resells these to Renault plants and suppliers; it also diagnoses and repairs electric car batteries
3. Regenerating Natural Systems

“Soil is more important than oil.”

Example: General Mills

Regenerative agriculture is not yet happening on a large scale in the world’s food system. General Mills plans to advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, which equates to more than 20% of its North American sourcing footprint. General Mills’ approach to regenerative agriculture is to view the farming or ranching operation as an ecosystem, measuring outcomes in five key areas: economic resiliency in farming communities, soil health, water, above ground diversity, and cow and herd wellbeing.

Their first pilot project was launched in 2019 with 45 oat growers in the Northern Plains across North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. A second pilot, launched in 2020, comprises 24 wheat growers in the Southern Plains of Kansas’ Cheney Reservoir watershed, where more than 99% of the land is used for agriculture. A third pilot, also launched in 2020, involves three dairy farms in Western Michigan, all producing fluid milk used in yoghurt products.

General Mills is also converting a 34,000-acre conventional farm to certified organic, growing wheat and other crops as part of a diverse rotation to build healthy soil, and is planting 3,000 acres of new pollinator habitat throughout the farm in partnership with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

The company has made significant investments in research into regenerative agriculture with long term partners, including The Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute and the Soil Health Partnership. It has funded life cycle assessments of regenerative grazing operations, advanced the commercialization of a perennial grain with long root systems through a US$1 million grant to the University of Minnesota, and granted sums to the University of Manitoba to establish long-term crop rotation and cover crop research trials throughout the Canadian Prairies.

General Mills subsidiary Cascadian Farm has been working with The Land Institute since 2017 to help commercialise the grain Kernza by 2040. This has included providing a substantial research grant and producing an experimental 6,000 boxes of Kernza Honey Toasted Cereal for sale to the public. Kernza is a perennial cereal grain that does not need to be replanted every year, reducing tillage. Early research shows Kernza’s long roots may help preserve soil, enhance soil health and reduce nitrogen leaching: ‘We’ve done the basic science to show there’s less nitrate leaving Kernza than typical [annual] crops’ (Star Tribune, 2019).

The company is also working to communicate and establish the importance of regenerative farming to consumers through product packaging.