Most circle economy diagrams tend to mislead readers. This article aims to put the record straight. It is not that I am against circle economy thinking, if it ensures people get food on the table and roof over their heads. But we should not allow sloppy thinking.
Let’s start with the theory
The aim of the circular economy is to retain and recycle technical nutrients in the economy and to cycle biological nutrients from the economy to the biosphere and back, and to utilize money to facilitate transactions and trade. This is shown below, without the money.
Biological nutrients come from the eco-system and comprise plant material and animal material like that in leaves, leather, twigs etc. These are part of essential services – like food, baskets, shoes that eventually return to the earth, are incorporated into new organisms and are used again.
Technical nutrients comprise metals and minerals like silica that are mined and end up in products like knives, electronics etc. In the circular economy they are reused and recycled in new products.
To make the diagram clearer we can add where they come from: the green is the eco system and the brown represents the geological layer of the Earth.
To make it even clearer, the service products are those that make up the technical infrastructure that the biological nutrients cycle within. Service products keep the technical infrastructure going. Consumption products, like food and fuel provide energy that is spent. We added the picture of the city to represent technical infrastructure.
But the biological products return to the earth and the ecosystem. There is no point in mining products and then putting them back. We need to add new parts to the diagrams.
In this new version the blue circle has a “leg” to represent the extraction of minerals etc from the geosphere. On the left, the green circle is moved to be in contact with the green strip representing the eco-system.
But we are still not done. The eco-system gets products from the geosphere.
In this final diagram we show how phosphorus us mined and brought from the geological layer into the biological nutrient cycle. Now we are closer to reality.
The diagrams above show how biological nutrients cycle around from the economic system back to the eco-system and out again. Pollution occurs when nutrients accumulate in the wrong places. Example of this include accumulation of phosphorus in watercourses where eutrophication results. Note that we have added the red arrow to represent phosphorus – which enters the economic system from mineral sources.
At first sight it might seem that the phosphorus is something that can circulate indefinitely. In practice, however large quantities wash into the oceans where they are, or have been up to now, irretrievable for practical purposes. This means the practice of mining must continue.
Mineral elements and other technical nutrient components from the non-living layer have no place in eco-systems and should be kept separate from them. Again from the diagram it looks as if iron, for example, once mined can be circulated indefinitely. Whilst true in theory, the practice of combining metals and other materials so they cannot be separated during manufacture, combined with the practice of waste disposal has meant that large quantities of potentially useful technical nutrients are in landfill unrecoverable for all practical purposes.
I recommend a flexible pollutant fee approach: by placing fee levying mechanisms at strategic points where substances enter the economy, and raising fees sufficiently at sufficiently frequent intervals, the market gets stimulated to introduce non-emitting alternative approaches. Especially if most of the fees are returned to the economy as a taxpayer refund.
This approach has been propagated by the Swedish Sustainable Economy Foundation, for one.