12 April 2019

The circular economy can’t solve all the world’s problems, but it can solve several. And, to be honest, what’s the alternative? If we continue to consume the Earth’s resources at a rapid pace, we will bring the human race to catastrophe.

Used cars. In a circular economy they are used to make new cars. Photo credit: Sergio Souza

Defining the concept

Ken Webster is head of innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and one of the world’s leading experts in the circular economy. In fact, it was he who defined the concept and drew popular attention to it around 2012, which led to it coming into general use.

This year he plans to divide his time between a British university and LiU, where he has been invited by Mattias Lindahl, professor in product-related environmental work. In Sweden he will teach and meet students, researchers, politicians and business folk – to engage them in conversation and inspire. The day after our interview, Webster is to hold an open lecture in Linköping, and the following week will spend a few days in Finland.

“And I want to be inspired and learn while I’m here, as well. The Nordic countries are superb examples to follow in the environmental field, and Mattias and his colleagues are doing some really interesting work. I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation otherwise”, he says.

"In a circular economy you eliminate the idea of waste, not just waste", says Ken Webster. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

Contrast to linear economy

To put it simply, the term “circular economy” describes an economy in which material is recycled and reused many times. Goods are designed and manufactured not to be disposable, but to be used as raw materials for a new product. This is a cornerstone for long-term sustainable development, and in strong contrast to the currently prevalent linear economy, in which raw materials are obtained in order to manufacture goods that are subsequently discarded or incinerated.

The EU has adopted a plan of action to achieve a circular economy, and several countries have taken corresponding national decisions. Sweden, for example, has established a special delegation whose task is to reinforce the conversion to a biobased, resource-efficient and circular economy. Ken Webster says that increasing numbers are realising that change is necessary, but there are many impediments along the way.

“There isn’t a ready-to-use circular economy that you can just take off the shelf and start to use. The industrial revolution wasn’t a completed package, either: no major changes can be carried out in this way. You have to explore new paths, take risks, and sometimes experience setbacks”, says Ken Webster.

“But, to be honest, what’s the alternative? I can’t see one.”


Help from digitisation

The greatest obstacle on the way to a more sustainable economy is habit: most of us are still extremely comfortable with the traditional buy-use-discard chain. No one knows exactly how a radically different system could work. At the same time, technological development, and in particular digitisation, is making the conversion easier.

Ken Webster gives the example of carpooling and ridehailing services such as Uber. These work so well and are so easy to use that the need to own a car has been reduced.

“We’ve had taxi services for a long time, of course, but until now you could never be sure that the ride would arrive on time. Now you can see on your own telephone where the car is, and when it will arrive. What we actually need is, of course, transport: we don’t need to own the car”, says Ken Webster, who himself uses a carpool in England.

But isn’t there an intrinsic value in ownership?

“Well...for a product that is used as a tool, such as a car, I don’t think there is. But I’m also a musician, and I recognise that there may be an emotional value in actually owning the guitars I play.”

Taking photos after an interview at LiU. 

Less GDP, same growth

Even if political decisions are necessary to direct the conversion, there is no contradiction in principle between the circular economy and free enterprise and capitalism. While it is true that companies will have to manufacture products in a new way and consume less energy, they will still be able to operate in a free market and make profits. Nor will growth necessarily be slower, even if the GDP is currently calculated based on all economic activity, including resources that are consumed and disappear.

What about the standard of living? Would we all become poorer in a circular economy?

“No, not necessarily. But it will require other forms for both the production and consumption of goods. There’s no guarantee that the circular economy will enable us to maintain our social security system, but the opposite is just as true – it may be one way to do so. The alternative is much bleaker.”

Conversion to a circular economy may contribute to reducing climate change, although many other actions will also be required. Ken Webster says that he has hope – but he’s not optimistic – about the future of the Earth.

“I can’t say I’m optimistic. The trend is not positive; we have done far too little with respect to the climate. HG Wells coined a phrase to describe civilisation: it is in a race between education and catastrophe. At the moment, I’m not at all sure which one is going to win."

"But at the same time I have hope, because we have so many possibilities, so many tools available to bring about change. And people usually find a solution, even if it is at the last minute sometimes.”


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