A special report on the circular economy

We’ve spoken about the concept of the circular economy a few times already, but it’s definitely worth another look when a mainstay of economic discourse such as the Financial Times comes out with not only one piece but a whole report on the topic.

Modular housing and retrofitting

In the UK, the construction industry is responsible for 10 per cent of carbon emissions, part of the reason is that 50,000 buildings are demolished every year. Retrofitting old buildings, and constructing new ones more modularly, so they can be upgraded as needs change, are two ways of making significant progress in reducing that 10 per cent.

By designing buildings to be easily reconfigurable when their purpose changes, the need to demolish and rebuild would be reduced. A townhouse could be extended with bolt-on bedrooms as a family grows. Or, with minimal adjustments, student accommodation blocks might be transformed into sheltered housing for older people.

Modern modular building techniques can enable all this, and allow developers to make flexible units in factories before transporting them for assembly on-site. In addition, proponents say modular units can be constructed like giant Lego bricks, often within weeks, with less waste and at lower cost than traditional buildings. And they are often of high-quality design, too.

Right to repair

A good overview of some of the activism projects and current or planned legislation around the right to repair, forcing companies to make their products more repairable and legally allowing people to make those repairs themselves, without having to recourse to certified stores or directly with the manufacturer.

The move marked the first such shareholder proposal in the US. And, while tech leaders initially dismissed these ideas, Apple’s management performed a U-turn late last year to launch a self-service repair scheme that would allow customers to buy Apple-made components to replace worn out or broken parts.

Microsoft has made similar moves and other tech giants are likely to do the same — not least because the Biden administration said last year that it wanted the Federal Trade Commission, the competition watchdog, to look at anti-competitive restrictions on repair markets. Around half of US states are contemplating local legislation in this direction, too.

Sustainable harvest from seaweed

Perhaps straying away from actual circularity and into sustainability and generating less trash, the report also includes a piece about kelp. “Hardy and abundant, seaweed is playing an increasing role in sustainability initiatives: finding its way into packaging, cattle feed, and human diets.”

Canada’s Cascadia Seaweed, a Vancouver Island-based producer, is now developing seaweed that can bring down cows’ methane emissions as well as fatten them. Chief executive Mike Williamson notes that cattle feed producers operate on very thin margins, so they are unlikely to volunteer to add seaweed just to cut emissions. “But they will pay more if — in reducing their carbon footprint — they also have to feed their cows less overall.”

Those are three of our favourites, but the report also covers upcycling leftovers, recycled materials in cars, reusing and recycling discarded things, second-hand clothing apps, plastics, and cement. Lots of great projects and companies to learn about.

Image: Finch Buildings’ reconfigurable complex in Monnickendam © Kees Hummel.