What is the circular economy?

How can science and policy making combine to form a circular economy?
24 October 2022

Interview with 

Prof. Richard Herrington, Natural History Museum


The circular economy is a way of designing our societies and infrastructure that places sustainability at the centre of our plans for growth. To give us an overview of this rapidly expanding field, Risa Bagwandin spoke with Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum...

Richard - Well, the circular economy actually is we should be keeping all the products and materials that we use, we should keep them in use so that effectively we don't throw anything away that we create, we find a use for it. Either we use, upcycle, or we recycle it back and turn it into a new product.

Risa - What effect is a lack of circular economy having on the environment?

Richard - Well, the key thing is waste. If we don't have a circular economy, we are allowing things to be called waste and therefore we have to look for a place to dispose of them. The other thing is that because we are effectively throwing potentially useful things away, we're then putting energy into making new products from new materials. And obviously that's very wasteful because if we could just use those old materials again, we would be saving that energy footprint.

Risa - What can we do as individuals to maximize our efficiency or to actively participate in a circular economy?

Richard - When you buy a product, when you use a product, we should always be thinking about what we're gonna do with that product. Once we've finished with it, we ought to think about the product and its packaging and all of those things. So with the packing, are we going to throw that away or is that going to be reused? And the product itself, when it comes to the end of its life, are we just going to take it up to the local tip or are we going to think about what's going to happen to it when it comes to the end of its life.

Risa - Do you think industries should have more initiative to create consumer goods of greater quality? Because right now there is a range of products available. There are also things of lower quality that we know that are cheaper, but will not be lost as long. Do you think that there should be more initiatives by industry to ensure that there are certain quality standards perhaps?

Richard - I think so, and this got to be consumer driven because it is up to us to demand better quality products and products that last longer because it's really annoying to buy a washing machine that after five years no longer works very well. I go back to my childhood when washing machines lasted a lot longer. They were simpler, but we got into a society where we always wanted to get the new product, which meant that manufacturers realized people were only going to have a product for a few years and therefore they designed products that were only for shorter lives. So I think as consumers we should be demanding better quality products that we expect to use.

Risa - What about the use of recycled materials? For example, steel structures can be recycled, although there is a hesitancy to use recycled steel in case its property has changed.

Richard - No, that's a really good point. Something like steel, we recycle that a lot, but we have to be really careful that when we recycle, we create a product that's of equal quality. There has to be much more attention paid to monitoring what is inside the products that we create. When we create steel and it goes into a building, let's say, there should be information kept about what are the other metals that might be in the steel, because that has a bearing on, when we go to recycle it, if it gets too contaminated with other, other metals, for example, the steel might lose its qualities and therefore then we would only be able to use that steel for something that was needed less of a pure steel. So we need to be able to track those materials that are in buildings and so on so that when we get around to recycle them, we don't create products that are of lower quality

Risa - With respect to our carbon emissions. Is it possible to find alternative uses for carbon dioxide?

Richard - It is actually. And so there are people that are, you might have heard of this term, carbon capture. So there are uses for carbon dioxide. I mean it's used industrially. We use it actually in the food industry, so it is used for that. But we can also use carbon dioxide to create materials. And so there is quite a lot of research going into how we can turn carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into either products or we could capture that and put it into deep reservoirs, which then eventually will start to turn back into rocks. So the carbon dioxide will combine with the minerals in those rocks. So it is possible to capture carbon dioxide. Another really good way of capturing carbon dioxide, of course, is using plants. So this is why revegetating forests and so on is so important, and wetlands because those areas capture carbon dioxide and lock it in in the plant matter.

Richard - I mean, it would be lovely in a world if we had zero waste and that's really where we should aspire. But my takeaway for people is let's be less wasteful in our lives and think about all of those things that we use. And remember that we talk about throwing things away, but there is no away really. Because if we're putting things into landfill, that's got to be damaging. So we should get away from thinking about creating waste, minimizing that, and then used the things that we take out of the ground and we harvest from the fields. We should be looking to value those more.


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