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The hidden side of a Circular Economy Approach

The concept of Circular Economy has gained a fair amount of momentum in the latest period of global politics, and the European Union keep being engaged in several events, plans and activities to foster the application of the concept. The Circular Economy Action Plan adopted the 11th of March 2020 within the European Green Deal Framework, represents a tangible example of this commitment, as it provides a list of initiatives aimed at fostering resources’ recyclability for as long as their economic and practical reuse allows for, in other words the eco-design of products.

Reusing the same resources in closed loops and converting waste into high-quality new products are the most immediate concepts that shape the general belief of what Circular Economy is about. But these are just some of the underlying challenges that define what a Circular Economy Approach stands for.

The key aspects that are rarely talked of in terms of Circular Economy, consist in the reduction of production and consumption of goods, and in the halt to wasteful consumer behaviour. When thinking about whether buying second-hand products, fixing and reusing old things, co-sharing services, consumers are mainly choosing whether embracing circularity over linearity in a circular framework of renting, repairing, reselling and reusing.

Consumption and behavioural patterns play a key role in enabling the transition towards a circular economy but, if not directed to the right path, they can represent a double-edged sword, being at the same time enablers and deterrents of this transition. In fact, If on one side, best behavioural practices can really streamline the process of becoming fully circular, by giving companies the only choice of doing likewise, on the other side wasteful consumption patterns, careless consumers’ behaviour and even the scarce demand for circular products can abruptly lead to quite the opposite situation.

Circular Economy is not only the bearer of a disruptive change in our consumption paradigm, but also in cutting it down, by pushing people to reuse things, besides purchasing new ones. It is not a philosophy of buying. It is a philosophy of reusing, repurposing, regenerating.

Understanding the reasons hampering consumers’ involvement towards the circular economy, is a pretty ambitious goal, as the driving factors that mainly govern consumers’ behavioural choices are endless, and sometimes, irrationally unexplainable.

The attitudes of consumers towards pro-environmental behaviours may depend on a series of practical aspects connected with the functionalities of the product and the economic value, but also on irrational emotions mainly connected with risks, concerns and trust. Personal features, social experiences and other psychological and sociocultural pressures are significant drivers influencing the acceptance of a CE-based approach. One of the main aspects the seems to be a current major barrier to consumers’ engagement in circularity, is related to consumers’ perceptions that circular products do not present a similar quality to their respective linear ones. And this is not entirely groundless. Currently, most plastic products collected for recycling are reprocessed into products of much lower quality, and hence meant for lower-value applications (Nayar R., 2021).

Who’s to blame?

The first actors expected to be responsible for bending the line of the current economic paradigm, are identified in governments and businesses who are considered to be the frontrunners of such disprutive change and thus in charge of paving the way for a circular economy-based consumption and production model.

There lies the tipping point. Circular economy will be entirely possible only when consumers learn to embrace the idea of circularity in their daily life, only when they move from looking at it as external viewers, to start playing the starring role, through actions like sharing, recycling, reusing.

Wasteful consumption and behavioural patterns need to be urgently addressed through awareness-raising campaigns about the importance of reducing consumption and waste in favour of more circular practices.

To achieve a truly circular world, we need to encourage consumers to fully participate in the idea. A circular transition is only possible with their involvement and a shift of their perspective towards a greater acceptance of new forms of consumption and fruition of products. 

As everything in life, this does not go without sacrifices. Switching to different behavioural patterns require time and effort. A person would forget multiple times to take his own glass bottle before it becomes an assimilated habit. Limiting the use of packaging would also cause some inconvenience, but to a less extent if supported by the contribution of companies in convincing consumers to switch to recycled products. And at the same time, consumers should boycott companies that follow the old production paradigm. A circular process in a circular framework. In the same vein, before someone would be effortlessly able to leave behind the idea of ownership to embrace that of sharing, it takes education and knowledge.

It would require a carrot-and-stick approach by governments, to push companies on one side into making the investments needed to ensure that circular economy is on their agenda, and boost consumers on the other into performing circular practices through educational programmes and raising-awareness campaigns. When it comes to behavioural practices at an individual level, the way individuals respond to global challenges seem to hugely diverge from the way those are tackled at a global level. Nowadays, “nudging” seems to be the win solution. Gently encouraging someone to do something by showing first-hand examples and initiatives: that is what we need to hopefully trigger a positive domino-effect from one person to another.

“When individuals gain more knowledge and when behaviour change is in their self-interest, they start using their power as consumers and voters to support behaviour compatible with sustainable outcomes” (GEMR, 2016)

The next blog post will look at Circular Economy with a geographical “lens”!

Stay tuned if you are curious about the Circular Economy Map!

References

Global Education Monitoring Report Team (2016), Global education monitoring report, 2016: Planet: education for environmental sustainability and green growth

Kirchherr, J., Piscicelli, L., Bour, R., Kostense-Smit, E., Muller, J., Huibrechtse-Truijens, A., & Hekkert, M. (2018), Barriers to the circular economy: evidence from the European Union (EU), Ecological Economics, 150, 264-272

Nayar R. (2021), The challenges of creating a circular economy, Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1807206

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