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Clothes that Grow, 3D Printing from Waste and More: The Circular Economy in Practice

Earth Overshoot Day - the day we use up more resources in a year than the earth can regenerate - fell as early as August 8th this year. 

This is a direct consequence of our current economic system, which is structured such that we take resources from the earth, make them into products, and dispose them off after use.

With resource scarcity, pollution and overflowing waste on one hand, and the need to sustain economic development on the other - can we reimagine our economy to be something that actually... works?
The circular economy offers a framework to do just that.

What is the circular economy?

To begin understanding what the circular economy is, first understand what it’s not, says Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Emma Fromberg in her DIF session. The circular economy is the antithesis of the current linear “Take-Make-Dispose” model – it is a system that aims at “closing the loop” of resource flows in our economy, to endlessly regenerate resources and always keep materials at their highest value, just like nature does.
The CE goes far beyond being “recycling on steroids”.
This essentially involves circulating resources in flows such that: (a) renewables (such as water, cotton) used in the production cycle are returned safely back to nature after use, and (b) finite materials (such as metals) are kept in closed loops for as long as possible.

The circular economy in practice

Following this framework and attempting to fix the economy is no breezy task – it requires unprecedented collaborations between unlikely actors. But it also offers enormous opportunities for those who are able to capitalize on this challenge.

The circular economy finds applications much beyond recycling or refurbishing at the end of a product’s life. In fact, the amount of waste created is largely dictated by the design and material choices of a product. The circular economy framework provides interventions at all stages of the product cycle, beginning right from design, to business models, and reuse or remanufacturing at its end:

1. Designing a product

Petit Pli is a clothing range designed for fast growing infants that completely eliminates the wasteful purchase and throwing of new clothes - by designing garments that actually expand to fit a growing child.

2. Selecting materials

Plastic. Why use a material that lasts practically forever, for making a cup or bottle we only use for a few minutes? CBPAK’s bio-based materials for single-use containers can be returned to the earth after use.
                                            
“I was cassava”: Compostable cups made from (otherwise wasted) parts of the cassava plant

3. Selling and using products: New business models

Instead of purchasing lights upfront, paying to maintain and then ultimately dispose the lights, some offices now pay Philips “per lux” for light as a service.

4. Recovering material value at end of use

Protoprint is an Indian company that processes used HDPE plastic waste (containers, bottles, etc) into highly profitable filaments for 3D printers - valorising what would’ve otherwise gone to landfill at the end of the cycle, and providing better livelihoods for waste-pickers.
Protoprint turns plastic waste into 3D filament, while creating positive social impact

The circular economy clearly offers a chance to innovate and capitalise on disruptive ideas across the product life-cycle, while considering a systems approach. The Disruptive Innovation Festival showcases many more such exciting opportunities and case studies for the circular economy. At Infinitive, we’re bringing these opportunities to the Indian context through curated content and workshops as part of our outreach activities with the Disruptive Innovation Festival.

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To learn more about the circular economy, check out the engaging DIF Learner’s Journey series; or an intro to the Circular Economy in 30 Minutes. Read fascinating case studies for circular initiatives at each stage of the product cycle compiled by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and in other DIF sessions.

This post was written as part of an engagement with Infinitive, with inputs from Pavithra Mohanraj and Priyal Shah. Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

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