The Circular Economy: n, o, p, and q

Such a nice idea, isn’t it? That the byproducts from everything that you need are useful and valuable elsewhere within the system that sustains us all. No waste, no pollution.

No more throwing things away, because (other than a very few, very expensive space probes) humanity hasn’t yet worked out how to send things away.

So how do we turn something linear into something circular?

Natural systems manage to be (more-or-less) circular: the water cycle, for example: evaporation, condensation and precipitation, over and over for billions of years. Or fish in the sea: left to themselves, the various species of fish would fill all the different niches where we have now made them scarce, and natural levels of predation would merely make room for more fish.

Cyclic systems must work, because the natural world got along fine before Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough or the Common Fisheries Policy. Long before conscious study and intervention, many species were happily chalking up a span of a million years or more, with plenty of diversity.

Then along comes a species that supplemented the natural cycles with a new one. Animals had used tools before, but one animal didn’t merely make use of sticks and stones that happened to be lying around: man acquired the ability to think ahead, and to shape complex tools that couldn’t have occurred naturally.

I want to use the Acheulean handaxe to illustrate the point because this very early, very simple machine shows something fundamental about human technology: it’s not cyclic. If you were butchering a carcass with your handaxe and you broke it on a stubborn bone, or you decided that it had become too blunt, you had to get a new one. (You could, perhaps, chip another flake off to reveal a new sharp edge, but your axe would become smaller if you did this.) Thus, at the dawn of man, people were acting in more-or-less the same way as we do when we go to Phones4U and request an upgrade. This one’s no good: get a new one.

Flint hand axe

Prototype Swiss Army Knife, circa 750,000 BCE

You can’t recycle a broken flint handaxe. The Earth will do it for you via erosion and the compression of sedimentary rock, but that doesn’t happen on any sort of timescale that a mere species can take an interest in. Instead, you go and get more raw materials from out of the ground.

Interestingly, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where handaxes were first made, the materials were ten kilometres from any settlement. Even back then, it seems we had logistics and procurement, as well as waste.

You might be tempted to dismiss this example on the grounds that we’re better than this nowadays. It’s true that the bronze age brought us tools that could be reforged, but for the vast majority of human history the stone handaxe was the only device there was, and you couldn’t remake a handaxe any more than you can turn fired pottery back into clay, or make bread out of burnt toast.

We take the raw materials we need, make our devices, wear them out, throw them away, and start again. This is called the linear economy, and we still apply it today. For a while, recycling was an option, but nowadays many modern products are a mass of different materials, not readily or economically separated.

Technology has given us all kinds of good things like dentistry, family planning and communications. Almost nobody would advocate a return to the simpler technologies of an earlier age, but many of the things that we enjoy nowadays come with an environmental price, because they are the product of a linear economy.

Our supply chains are exactly that: supply chains, not supply loops.

Heavy machinery at a landfill site

How’s recycling working out, where you live?

You can think of the single useful life that is obtained from many materials as being like an arc: it comes out of the ground, enters into a period of usefulness, ceases to be useful, and returns to the earth. It’s an ’n’ shape.

the n-shaped economy

Under the ‘n’-shaped economy, materials describe a brief arc of usefulness, before returning to the ground

The archetype for the circular economy is an ’o’ shape, which sees items or materials going round and round ad infinitum. It’s a nice idea, but it’s wholly idealised. Getting something from nothing isn’t realistic because even if you never waste anything again, the materials you depend upon came out of the ground at some point. Statistically, we all (as citizens of planet Earth) own something like 80kg of aluminium… yet two hundred years ago, nobody had ever seen any. Recycling is essential with this costly and energy-intensive material… but it wasn’t always an option: the pump had to be primed.

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy may be difficult to realise, with complex products

Thus, the circular economy that supersedes the ’n’ shape isn’t really an ‘o’, but more of a ‘p’. Materials must be taken out of the ground if they are to ascend into a useful cycle. 

The ‘p’-shaped economy

The ‘p’-shaped economy may be more realistic, recognising that cycles have to begin from something…

Even then, that’s not the happy ending of the story. Although your product may be more throughly sustainable, fairtrade, non-toxic, homespun, low-carbon, vegan, recycled and eco-labelled than Jeremy Corbyn’s moustache, there’s always a bit of entropy in any system. Materials wear away, or get contaminated, or mixed together in a way that changes them for good – or they get destroyed in accidents, or simply lost. If the circular economy is truly an economy, then you have to accept that people are going to buy or lease your products and take them away and use them in unanticipated ways.

The ‘q’-shaped model

The ‘q’-shaped model recognises that even though you reuse and recycle as much as possible, entropy awaits

Like zero defects or full employment, the circular economy is unattainable, but it’s a neat way to express an aspiration. In reality, it’s not an ‘o’ shape at all, but if we apply enough ingenuity we might manage a shape that looks something like “pooooq” – a shape that describes lots of useful ‘orbits’ before entropy sets in at last.

The ‘pooooq-shaped economy’

The ‘pooooq’ economy: our best-case scenario sees redesigned products being used the maximum number of times, before they eventually become unfit to serve.

I once heard a guest speaker (and I wish I could remember who it was… Professor Bernard Hon, maybe?) who told us that a car’s electric window-winder mechanism was an ideal candidate for component reuse. It’s hidden away inside the door, so the Fashion Police can’t make a fuss that it isn’t the latest type. Car window winder mechanisms are reasonably durable, because of course it would reflect badly upon the brand if they failed… but how much more would it cost to make a window actuator that was designed to last through not just the life of the car, but through the life of five cars, with the unit being extracted and refitted four more times?

Twenty percent extra, our guest speaker said. But if that’s true, who pays for the current practice whereby an end-of-life vehicle gets shredded and the parts are either melted down or burnt in the name of energy recovery?

Car window actuator

Everything you ever wanted to know about automotive window actuators may be a mere click away.

We all pay. Motorists, for sure, but in fact everyone who needs commodities such as materials and energy… which means all of us.

It seems we’re barely out of the bronze age. Some people and organisations are showing that it’s possible to be ‘greener’, but many items are no more likely to be reused than a worn out Acheulean handaxe. Of course, we’re new at this: it’s only been seven thousand years since we started working with metals.

Perhaps we’ll crack this Circular Economy thing yet – and perhaps evaluating our efforts in terms of ’n’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ will help.


Paradise Lost: a cautionary tale

If you’ve never heard of the Republic of Nauru, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The smallest republic in the world has fewer than 9,400 citizens. Globally, there’s just one state with a smaller population, and that’s the Vatican City.

If you choose to visit Nauru (about 200 tourists make the journey each year) you’ll find yourself on an island so small that you can walk all around it in the course of a day. By the vast scale of the Pacific it’s a flyspeck, notable only for its geographical remoteness. A virtually featureless ocean stretches 970km northeast to the Marshall Islands; 1260km southwest to the Solomons and beyond that, just under 5000km to Australia. Checking it out with Google Earth, the only points of interest I found in the vicinity… were shipwrecks.

Still, as an island with no disease, no mosquitoes, a benign tropical rainforest climate, a fresh water lagoon, birds to hunt, fish to catch and fruit to eat, Nauru was everything we look for in a tropical island paradise. It was settled by Micronesian and Polynesian people some 3,000 years ago. Before that, the only inhabitants had been seabirds.

Lots and lots of seabirds. For millions of years.

Along with Banaba in Kiribati and Makatea in French Polynesia, Nauru had extraordinarily rich phosphate rock deposits, originating as bird droppings in ancient times. This was discovered just as the 20th century began.

The more developed nations of the world had an insatiable appetite for phosphates, to be used in fertilisers. Throughout the 20th century (other than a few years of Japanese occupation during WWII) just about the only reason to go to Nauru was for the phosphates.

Nauru spent much of the 20th century as a trusteeship administered jointly by Australia, New Zealand and the UK, first on behalf of the League of Nations and then the United Nations. Independence came in 1968… at which point Nauru faced its greatest challenge: not poverty, but the opposite. Mining operations brought in a staggering A$100-120 million per year… for a small island nation with a population the size of a modern English village. For a time, in the 1970s and 80s, the residents of Nauru had the highest per-capita income in the world. Luxuries were imported, and Nauruan people acquired a taste for Western food… with the health consequences you might expect, including an epidemic of diabetes.

It was recognised that the phosphate deposits wouldn’t last forever, and that some of the income must be invested to secure a long-term future for the islanders. A number of government projects were initiated, and Nauru took its place on the world stage. Most notably, they built the 52-floor Nauru House office block in Melbourne, but they acquired real estate all over the world.

It didn’t work out. On some of their international investments the Nauruans were robbed blind, and there are also questions about corruption within the tiny nation’s government, as this documentary shows. Billions of dollars that should have secured a future for the islanders have disappeared, but while the money was flowing in, few noticed that it was leaking away at an alarming rate.

Even the richest mine in the world must be exhausted eventually. Since independence, some 43 million tonnes of phosphate rock had been shipped out, and as the 21st century began, the former rainforest interior of the island had been replaced by open-cast mining. The locals call it ‘Topside’, a bizarre moonscape of limestone pillars, left behind once the valuable phosphates had been hauled away. Something like eighty percent of the tiny island is nothing but played-out mine workings that also serve as a rubbish dump.

‘Topside’, Nauru.

‘Topside’, Nauru: former rainforest. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

And for what?

I’ve heard that one of the major landowners bought himself a Lamborghini. That seems a little excessive, but perhaps an island that has just one set of traffic lights is sports car heaven? Albeit with only two choices of route for your twenty-minute drive: clockwise or anticlockwise.

Probably the most obvious symptom of the Republic’s haemorrhaging money was Air Nauru: at its peak, they operated seven aircraft (some sources say nine), with routes to Hong Kong, Taipei, Honolulu, Auckland, Sydney and elsewhere… often with a load factor of just 20%. In the 1990s its operations were occasionally suspended due to airworthiness and safety concerns, or insolvency. Piece by piece, the fleet was disposed of until just a single aircraft remained: then that one was seized by creditors seeking repayment after defaults on foreign loans. For Nauru, the fairytale of rags-to-riches had just about come to an end. The overseas investments were sold off, and the government of the day sought new ways to raise money.

There followed a turbulent time in which the government on Nauru tried just about everything… but what can you sell when you’re thousands of kilometres from everybody else? Nauru set up a completely unregulated offshore banking industry, and it’s said to have facilitated all kinds of money-laundering, including the squirreling away of perhaps $70bn that should have gone to Russia when the USSR broke up. Terrorist suspects started turning up with Nauruan passports, too. It’s not so much that the former tropical paradise became a clearing-house for international evil: it was really just desperation. Nauru played Taiwan off against the People’s Republic of China by first recognising one and then the other, in its capacity as a member of the United Nations – securing millions of dollars in aid from each. It was quick to recognise the Georgian breakaway Abkhazia, and received aid from Russia in return… and so on. Then in 2001, Nauru found a new way to trade on its isolation, permitting Australia to construct two detention centres for refugees, in order to keep them out of Australia – part of Aussie Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’. Substantial aid payments were received in return. Unlike every other community I’ve ever heard of, the Nauruans were very welcoming towards the new arrivals. Perhaps they recognise something of their own situation in the plight of migrants and refugees.

It’s a terrible thing to contemplate, that one of the wealthiest peoples on Earth can become wholly dependent upon foreign aid. Nauru has no farming or forestry industry, and no pastureland. Despite phosphates leaking into the sea, fishing still delivers some good seafood, but virtually everything else must be imported. This leaves the formerly wealthy Nauruans in a very tenuous position where goods are very expensive (since everything must cross those thousands of kilometres of open sea) and unemployment stands at around 90%. (Something like 95% of those in jobs work for the government.)

Even without the problem of bankruptcy, Nauru would be in a desperately precarious position, facing not one but two environmental catastrophes: the toxic ruin of the interior of their own island, and rising sea levels that threaten the coastline.

Calamity is nothing new to Nauru. 1878, a tribal war broke out, fuelled by imported firearms and strong drink. Astoundingly, on such a small island (just 21 km2), the conflict went on for ten years, ending only when Germany annexed the island, incorporating it as part of the Marshall Islands Protectorate. Then the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 killed between sixteen and eighteen percent of the population (reports vary). Every October 26th the Nauruans celebrate Angam day, remembering when in 1932 the 1,500th citizen was born, this being felt to be a bare minimum for the survival of the community.

The island was shelled by the Germans in December 1940, and invaded by the Japanese in August 1942. The Japanese deported 1,200 Nauruans to labour elsewhere within their territory, and only 737 survived to return home. Not until 1949 did the island’s population reach 1,500 again.

Nauru has always been close to ceasing to exist, but that the greatest threat to its survival should come from wealth, rather than privation, ought to be a lesson to us all. My own country bears vivid scars from wealth creation and extractive industry, but Britain is large. It had the advantage of centuries of parliament, and a much greater pool of people from which to draw policymakers – and an effective opposition. Our progress towards industrialisation occurred not in a pyrotechnic burst, but a centuries-long smoulder. I’ve never had the option of buying a Lamborghini, but neither has anybody sold my country out from under me.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some ideas of the extent of mining on Nauru.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some idea of the extent of mining on Nauru. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

In miniature, Nauru demonstrates the same issues that humanity faces everywhere else. On such a small island, the effects are easier to see, but we are all dealing with the consequences of industrialisation. There’s just one difference: we only get one Earth, but the people of Nauru might get another island. Australia has offered to re-settle the people of Nauru (and, presumably, any detainees it may have at that time) on one of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. That’s preferable to death on the ruined island… but it’s a stark prospect: a sovereign nation ceasing to exist, abandoned by its people.

The first Westerner to sight Nauru was the British captain of a whaler, John Fearn, in 1798.

He named it Pleasant Island.