From ‘take, make and waste’ to the circular economy

22 january 2014

By Alexander Collot d’Escury, CEO Desso

Last January a ‘fetid smog’ settled over Beijing, noted by the Economist newspaper: “A swathe of warm air in the atmosphere settled over the Chinese capital like a duvet and trapped beneath it pollution from the region’s 200 coal-fired power plants and 5m cars. The concentration of particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, hit 900 parts per million – 40 times the level the World Health Organisation deems safe. You could smell, taste and choke on it.

The Economist suggested this might have been a game-changing moment for the Chinese authorities when the need to balance economic growth with environmental concerns comes to the fore. This “airpocalypse” led to a series of reforms to restrict air pollution and the decision to spend $275 billion over the next five years to clean it up. The Atlantic magazine also reported recently on the problem of air pollution – this time in reference to Indoor Air Quality – noting that in China the problem had pushed up rates of asthma by 40% over the previous five years.

Of course, these issues are not specific to China but it is timely that the debate about the benefits of the circular economy are going to be debated at The Annual Meeting of the New Champions organised by the World Economic Forum in Dalian this September.

For some years, we at Desso have been convinced that the smart long-term strategy for businesses is to build towards a circular economy model. It offers a way to promote economic growth while helping to deal with four world crises:

1) The climate crisis – The circular economy calls for greater dependence on renewable energy and therefore helps us reduce carbon emissions.

2) The toxicity crisis – Circular economy design philosophies like Cradle to Cradle®, which we have been following at Desso since 2008, put great focus on the importance of ideally non-toxic materials in products for two reasons: first, you need to ensure that the materials are pure enough to be recycled in a healthy way once the materials are separated after take back; and second, it is crucial to aim to ensure that there are no chemicals in your products that could pose risk to human health or the environment. For this reason, our products are analysed and assessed against strict Cradle to Cradle® criteria.

3) Scarce raw materials crisis – The circular economy asks us to design products and services in such a way that ‘waste becomes food’, as the co-founders of the Cradle to Cradle® concept put it (McDonough/Braungart);

4) Energy crisis – Continued depletion of fossil fuels such as oil causes price hikes and destabilises the economy; and nuclear power, as we have seen, can lead to terrible accidents. The circular economy puts the focus on renewables.

Facing its own environmental crises, China might end up leading the way in developing renewable energy and finding greener routes to economic growth. But we can all learn from one another and in particular businesses can unleash new health and wellbeing product innovations by collaborating with other companies as we have found in our work with partners such as Royal Philips, Aquafil and Dow Chemicals.

This blog was also published on the World Economic Forum Website.