The fire, the hummingbird and the circular economy

If a circle rotates on its axis, it forms a sphere. Earth for example. And if that world replaces the linear economy with its circular alternative, the prize is also the Earth.

In this hypothetical case, the human species would have known how to reconcile its growth with the management of finite resources and of the wealth necessary not only to maintain well-being, but to pay the bill for that transition.

We close the zoom and focus on a small Spanish town. Melilla can be twice autonomous, due to political status and due to the Second Life project, which recovers used batteries from electric cars (Nissan Leaf) to inject immediate energy if the thermal power plant that supplies it fails.

This is how Endesa proposes a triple solution: to the risks of isolated electrical networks, to the storage of large amounts of energy that could compensate for the meteorological dependence on renewables, and to the mountain of batteries that will accumulate the desirable success of the electric car.

El proyecto Second Life, en Melilla, recupera baterías usadas de coches eléctricos para inyectar energía inmediata si falla la central térmica que la abastece.
The Second Life project, in Melilla , recovers used batteries from electric cars to inject immediate energy if the thermal power plant that supplies it fails. Getty Images / iStock

Sorry, the solution would rather be fourfold: “At the present time , with ever-increasing consumption and price volatility, innovations that reuse products, increase their useful life and reduce the consumption of scarce raw materials are more necessary ”, points out María Malaxechevarría, Endesa’s general director of Sustainability.

Virtuous circle

Imagine that advances such as much more efficient batteries are added to a project like this – those developed by R + D + i now – vehicles with spare parts. ecodesign designed to be installed in other cars, like someone who donates an organ —Renault is already building a factory oriented in that sense—, and also that more and more of these vehicles are used for shared use or rental to reduce their number.

A model change like this implies a reset, it needs a drop by drop to pierce one of the hardest matters in (human) nature: routine. For example, to assume new customs such as the exchange of used clothing or the sale of second-hand that brands and platforms are already testing.

I understand that large companies have a social responsibility to help small ones

Ángel Fernández, President of the Board of the Fundación Economía Circular.

Beyond these sustainable wedges in the linear economy, the big question is how to achieve the squaring of the circle, how to implement a model that consumes less without sacrificing its equivalent in activity . The president of the Fundación Economía Circular, Ángel Fernández, recommends a realistic look that does not demonize. “Yes, with plastics or gasoline, but this model has brought us to the highest levels of human development or life expectancy. We prefer that companies transform, not close ”. Transition, not demolition.

Big companies don’t worry him as much as the myriad SMEs without so many resources. Here the domino effect can work: “To meet their sustainability goals, they need to extend those criteria to their supply chains and include SMEs on this journey. I understand that large companies have a social responsibility to help small ones. ”

¿ Round business?

It all depends on how. “From this great change great opportunities can arise, a stimulus to competitiveness and innovation. Reusing materials requires new technologies and processes that can have an impact on growth, employment and new value chains ”, says Begoña Gómez, director of Communication, Patient Relations and ESG at Novartis, a pharmaceutical company that aspires to neutrality in the use of plastics for 2030.

Examples of these opportunities are not lacking, such as the Toledo company Preco and its chemical recycling system for plastics that eliminates toxic additives and reduces the progressive degradation caused by current mechanical recycling. Ángel Fernández suggests another example of new employment in businesses such as the rental of appliances or design to last: “If you buy a new television, it comes from Taiwan or Korea. To repair it, you will go down to the workshop on the corner. ”

El sistema de reciclaje químico de plásticos de Preco elimina los aditivos tóxicos y reduce el degradado progresivo causado por el actual reciclado mecánico.
Preco’s chemical recycling system for plastics removes toxic additives and reduces progressive degradation caused by current mechanical recycling. Getty Images / iStock

This model of eternal return is a dream of freedom for people as poor as Europeans in raw materials. “Reducing this dependence on the outside would allow any activity to overcome problems such as the scarcity of resources, ensure supply and reduce the environmental impact,” adds Begoña Gómez.

The mind weighs down or flies

But we return to the problem of collective and essential cultural change. “Lack of awareness is a drag on taking off,” says María Malaxechevarría. There is little understanding of the circular concept and its benefits, in addition its products tend to be more expensive, limiting demand. ”

Circular culture in financing: that the corner bank grants a loan to that workshop appliance repair even if the similar business folder is empty. In the legislation, which has advanced in Spain but needs stimulation at street level: “In France, the law almost prohibits the waste of food and shops or restaurants have to sign agreements with social organizations so that food does not end up in the garbage” , proposes Fernández.

Reusing subjects requires new technologies and processes that can impact growth and employment

Begoña Gómez, Director of Communication, Patient Relations and ESG at Novartis

Circular culture in education , even without specialized trades in professional training and with few university degrees and master’s degrees in ecodesign and other circular criteria. Sometimes companies resort to self-training, such as Endesa, which has created the first Spanish Academy of Circular Economy together with Campus Iberus.

And cultural evolution in the capacity for mutual understanding. Such a profound transformation implies clashes between the past and the new. Of changes against resistance to change. From consuming much less with having a good job. Or the generic ecological visions with their real application on the ground.

In this sense, Fernández gives the example of theoretical support for electric vehicles, but at the same time the practical rejection of the exploitation of a lithium reserve in Extremadura to manufacture batteries. “We need approaches for intelligent debates and a kind of justice of the peace who brings positions closer to each other, because if we are not talking about entelechies.”

Getty Images / iStock

Other cases of sensible cooperation

The Hoteles Circulars project in Mallorca involves several multinational chains, Iberostar among them. Explained in a schematic way, the Tirme waste manager helps hotels to collect and classify their organic waste. It converts part of it into compost, which in turn nourishes the local gardens whose products return to the palate of customers. Through QR codes they can see the history of that tomato.

“We highly value any private initiative that makes bold decisions and integrates the circular economy into its business strategy,” explains Sandra Benbeniste, director of the Office of Sustainability EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) of the Iberostar Group, which has eliminated single-use plastics, aspires to the same with its landfill waste for 2025 and develops initiatives for the responsible consumption of oily fish and coastal health.

Lack of awareness is a drag on take off. There is little understanding of the circular concept and its benefits

María Malaxechevarría, General Director of Sustainability at Endesa.

The Cotec Foundation for Innovation highlights several cases circularity in its latest report, but this one especially because of its origin in civil society: the Vallés Circular Agreement links the 23 municipalities of Vallés Occidental and other institutions and agents for networking. Every year it holds a meeting where solutions and an agora of ecodesign strategies are proposed in local companies. Hence, projects have arisen such as taking advantage of forest biomass to prevent fires.

Fernández is moderately optimistic, he believes in the multiplier effect of technology where the mentality does not arrive with the necessary force. Technological maturity tends to accelerate. And although it is not directly related to circularity, Mutua Madrileña recalls a milestone in human reaction capacity thanks to science, medical in this case: “The 12 December 2019 hospitalized the first person sick with covid; the 11 of January of 2020 the virus DNA is sequenced for the first time; the 24 February 2020 the first vaccine is ready to begin its human trial. ”

Cultural principles, purposes and data

The circular economy is based on eight principles:

– Eco-conception considers the environmental impact throughout the life of a product.

– Ecology industrial optimizes the management of stocks and flows of materials, energy and services.

– Functionality to prioritize use over possession.

– Reintroduce products with uses different from those enjoyed by their first consumers.

– Reuse waste or parts of waste that can be used to develop new products.

– Recycling: take advantage of still useful materials from waste.

– Repair damaged items.

– Obtain energy from waste that is not can be recycled.

According The Circularity Gap Report 2019 , 9% of the world economy is circular. A lot, a little? Little if it stagnates. And a promising figure if it serves as a call effect.

According to the Cotec Foundation, the generation of waste in Spain is below the European average. However, here the 54% of this waste, more than double the community average. It is an even more worrying percentage if the objective of the Union is to reduce the average to 10% on 2030. One better piece of information: the report of 2019 of Cotec details 167 success stories in the Spanish circular economy, triple the number two years earlier.

By the end of this decade and in relation to the data of 2010, the Spanish Circular Economy Strategy aims to reduce a 30% the national consumption of materials, decrease a 15% waste generation and improve a 11% efficiency in the use of water. And it aims for a drastic drop in food waste: a 50% less in households and retail consumption.

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