What if we lived in a world where we didn’t own anything? I’m not talking about giving away all of our possessions and living in a yurt. I mean what if we could still enjoy all of the latest gadgets and appliances we love, and the clothing and furniture we need, but we just paid to use them instead of bought and owned them outright? What if we didn’t have the hassle or expense of maintaining them or replacing them when they no longer served their purpose? What if doing things this way was better for the environment and more efficient for the companies making these goods? And what if it was better value for us on top? If it eased the squeeze on our household budgets enough to borrow a little less, spend a little more, enjoy life a little better? That’s a no-brainer surely?
Well this way of thinking is gaining serious traction among some of the world’s biggest producers of the goods we buy every day. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), an important charity and partner to HP, champions the concept of the “circular economy”. It’s a way of rethinking how products are designed, manufactured, used and recovered. It decouples growth from a reliance on increasingly scarce raw materials, moving to a more efficient, circular and low-carbon economy.
The concept is challenging the established ‘take, make’ dispose’ model of our economy, based on principles from the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. It’s a model that’s running out of time when you consider the sustainability challenges facing our society today. By 2050, the Earth’s population is on track to hit 9.4 billion people. The highest consuming group – the world’s middle class – is swelling at an unprecedented rate. In the next 20 years, global demand for fresh water alone will outpace supply by 40%. When all resources are taken into consideration, experts estimate we’ll need the equivalent of 2.3 planet Earths to sustain us. We only have one.
The EMF recently challenged designers to help bring the circular economy philosophy to life. The result was a new circular design guide and a range of interesting ideas, including a juicer – perhaps a new year’s resolution purchase now gathering dust in the cupboard – that could sell itself on the internet when it senses it hasn’t been used recently!
And here’s a live, real-life example. HP has launched a service called Instant Ink in a number of countries including many across Europe with more to come. Here’s how it works. An HP printer connected to the internet, detects when it’s getting low on ink, and automatically tells HP to send out replacement cartridges to subscribers. They arrive with a return box to collect the used cartridges, which are then recycled, along with other recovered plastics to create new ones. It’s better for the environment, saving 57% waste per printed page, the user never runs out of ink again and saves up to 70% on the cost of ink – win, win.
When society benefits as well, this circular economy approach can be made even more attractive. For instance, HP now purchases recycled plastic collected in Haiti. By opening a new market opportunity, generating income and partnering to improve conditions for workers, you can help to create jobs and bring dignity to the collectors of recyclables in Haiti – all while creating sustainable products. Furthermore, this initiative helps prevent plastics from reaching the Caribbean Sea, combatting the ever-growing problem of ocean pollution.
At its heart, the circular economy is a simple concept and a movement that is gathering pace, and actually already exists in many areas. Think about mobile phones – most of us lease the latest phone from our operator, bundled as a monthly package with a regular trade-in and upgrade service for our old phone. Businesses label us as “consumers” of their goods, but as Ellen MacArthur rightly points out, we’re actually “users”. We use products whilst they’re useful to us, and then we stop using them. But they still exist, we haven’t really consumed them. And what’s left can still be useful to others – whether through reconditioning or recycling. In feeding them back into a circular economy, it’s good for users, it’s good for businesses and it might just solve some of the biggest challenges facing our planet. Maybe it’s time we all got a bit more circular.
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