Sophie Thomas
October 18, 2023

A lot can happen in 7 minutes

I have 7 minutes to introduce the Circular Economy. A lot can happen in 7 minutes. Like in these 7 minutes whilst I talk to you-

Of the 100 billion tonnes of materials we extract around the globe every year - we will have extracted 1.3 million tonnes.

(I appreciate it’s hard to visualise or feel the weight of even 1 tonne. To assist consider that 1 tonne is the weight of a 1979 Volkswagen Beetle or a baby humpback whale).

So back to our 7 minutes – that 1.3 million tonnes of material includes 35,000 tonnes of iron ore, 300 tonnes copper, 900 tonnes aluminium ore and 1.7 tonne Lithium.

742 cars would have rolled off production lines. That’s enough cars to stretch end to end from here to Kings Cross station. These will add to the 1.8 billion cars currently parked up around the world.

In these 7 minutes we will globally have bought 300,000 pairs of shoes, 18,200 mobile phones and 7 million bottles of water.

We extract materials, we make goods and stuff to sell. The problem is once we have finished with it all we will just throw it all away. Out of that 100 billion tonnes more than 90% is either wasted, lost, or remain unavailable for years.

In these 7 minutes we will have thrown away 25 tonnes clothes, 710 tonnes electronics and 20x that in wasted food.

Our world is built on this very linear economic flow – and they are big flows that move around the world.

For those that can remember the periodic table from chemistry lessons with the 100 odd elements laid out, over 66 of them are used in a laptop – from silicon to indium, gold to Europium – and they all begin life in the earth. The Coltan that was mined in Democratic Republic of Congo will get shipped to be processed in China - sent around various countries in Asia - to be manufactured into parts then back to China - all to be assembled into a laptop that’s then shipped to Europe and sold to us. When the memory space runs out, its superseded by a fancier model or is chewed by your cat - it could well end up in Agbogbloshie where they try to recover a small % of the estimated $10bn of precious metals dumped in this electronic waste stream each year.

Materials are central to the story of human prosperity, but we must find ways to cut the tremendous costs we are now paying. The challenge therefore is how we bend this linear economic model into one that holds onto that product, that material, that embodied energy in a way that keeps value in the system for as long as possible. This is the circular economy – a redefinition of waste to resource and an opening up of great opportunities.

- It’s a new way of thinking about accessing waste to become the new raw materials for better products.

- New ways to have longer term relationships with your customers, not through selling them more stuff but through servitisation, repair and longevity.

- Home-shoring new materials streams that do not succumb to so many market fluctuations.

- Stronger connected supply chains that are not reliant on one country or are knowingly exploiting people and planet.

- It’s about intelligent use of digitisation that can extend the life of products and reduce the time to market and building new climate tech that doesn’t add tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere but helps nature rather than hurting it (ie. regenerative).

And it’s about how we invest in these vital ideas too. Capital will need to be more long term as we get these new materials and systems up and running.  Start-ups may also need to be behaviour change specialists as we re-learn how to use materials and have different relationships with customers, and governments will need to put in long term strategic plans to signpost the way towards green growth.

Circularity is fundamental to zero carbon. All this extraction, processing, manufacturing, and using - emits a lot of carbon. Infact over 70% of global GHG emissions are tied to material handling and use (and in these 7 minutes that’s 70% of 490,000 tonnes of GHGs). It’s not just GHGs, materials are driving over 90% of total global biodiversity loss and water stress.

But we have all the tools to change this and there are a lot of good ideas out there. It’s a bit of a no-brainer. And it’s exciting. Circularity allows you to re-think the whole system. Not to say it will be easy. It’s our own fault, we have made very complex economic systems. Multiple players, countries, buyers, sellers, brokers, wasters…and we have a lot of work to do. As Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently put

“The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges”.

At etsaW Ventures we enable and accelerate circular technology in material and waste innovation. We build climate tech solutions and businesses delivering game changing impact. I have spent two decades working in material, design and resources and over 15 in circularity. As CTO and co-founder, I continuously search for innovation that can unlock circular potential. It’s not just about recycling or slightly better systems. With our experience we can sniff out the really good ideas that need to happen to disrupt the status quo and put us all on the road to circularity.

In my last half a minute (or approx. 93,000 baby humpback whales’ worth of material) I leave you with Circle Economy’s excellent 4 key levers as foundations for circular businesses, some of these we will be hearing from between starters and main:

- Use less – be intelligent and focused on what we use and moving away from the rampant consumption of stuff. The right material for the right reasons. That piece of packaging that is used for approx. 20 minutes holding my lunch should not be made from a material that will last another 1000 years.

- Use longer – aim to keep materials in use for as long as possible. A house for instance should be designed as a bank of materials for later use.

- Make clean – phase out toxic materials and processes. The hidden cost of making and growing is to the detriment to nature.

- Use again –building ways that cycle back in and reuse materials at their highest value, maximising secondary (and tertiary +++) materials for as long as possible.

Numbers and quantities can be seriously overwhelming but it’s worth remembering that a circular economy is a global economic model. Be prepared and ride this wave of opportunity with us.  CE will disrupt because it needs to reset the current, massive, and more and more broken BAU. But we need it - nature needs it, the planet needs it, people need it, and businesses need it.

(This speech was originally given at the Conduit Connect Circular Economy Dinner on the 16th October 2023. With thanks to all the various organisations who collect vital global data every year of what we use and what we throw away).