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Circular economy: it’s not just about recycling

circular economy
Xabier Sevillano

Xabier Sevillano

Senior Consultant in European Projects and LIFE Programme Expert

I have a plastic tray at home, the typical one used to bring breakfast in bed or in the living room. But it has something special: a broken tip. When it broke, my wife insisted on buying another one, but I told her that if it could still be used (with a little more care), there was no point in buying another tray.

Many times, when I see that tray, I remember how famous the term “circular economy” has become, and the misconception that many people have of the circular economy or the concept behind it. Because many people think that the circular economy is reduced to recycling, and that is precisely the last step.

The circular economy process

Applying the circular economy in your daily life is easy. You just need to think, every time you use something, about how you can extend its useful life. Maybe, as in the case of the tray, you can extend its working life by simply not replacing it. That would be the first level of the circular economy, which even falls outside the concept itself according to the more traditional criteria of the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

If it is no longer possible to use something as it is, perhaps it is time to buy a new object. But why buy something if you can fix it? We have become accustomed to short-lived products that are quickly replaced, sometimes because of obsolescence or sometimes because of changing fashions. But our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t even consider that option: if a shoe broke, they went to the cobbler.

This is another of the pillars of the circular economy: the right to repair, which has become a topical issue mainly linked to electronics (although it initially arose as a result of tractors and agricultural vehicles). Think for example of mobile phones. There are some alternatives, but rather few, that allow you to fix or even upgrade them (Fairphone), but everyone should have the right not to have to buy a new mobile phone when it breaks or becomes obsolete.

Have we already decided what to do with the object that is no longer in use? You would think that you can just throw it in the bin and forget about it, and that by doing so you are contributing to a better world. This is true, but recycling is, of all the options, the furthest away from the initial use. Therefore the one that requires the most effort and energy to bring the materials back into the value chain. If we are creative, new options emerge in the circular economy: reuse and remanufacture. A clear example of reuse would be the now fashionable furniture made from pallets. Remanufacturing involves more extensive processing, but in some industrial cases it can lead to fully functional spare parts with little effort.

The last level of the circular economy

And finally, there is what everyone knows: recycling. By recycling you help waste, once its useful life is over, to be reintroduced into the value chain, and thus get a second life, and then a third, a fourth, and so on. But any of the above options will have already extended the useful life of the original object. So that, overall, the useful life of the object and its materials can be considerably extended.

I believe that the philosophy of “extending the useful life” would make this world a better place. Not only if it is applied at a private level, but also in your professional life. If companies start to apply these reflections in their production processes – time and circumstances are forcing them to do so – we will be able to extend the life of increasingly scarce resources.

Expert person

Xabier Sevillano
Xabier Sevillano

Pamplona Office

Senior Consultant in European Projects and LIFE Programme Expert

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