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The Circular Economy and The Access Economy

by Sharon Ede on 30th July 2014

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infographic 'Disownership is the New Normal'What happens to resource efficiency, recycling and waste management in a world where disownership is becoming the new normal?

As much as it may seem that the nuts and bolts of resource and waste management is about sorting machinery, storage, bins and collection systems, it is really ultimately about people.

We know that if people are to use resources mindfully, to manage them well, and to both demand and correctly use appropriate end of life systems, then we need to design systems that they are easy and convenient to use.

There are two ‘muscles’ that can be flexed in relation to resource and waste management – the Circular Economy muscle, and the Access Economy muscle. A lot of muscle-building effort has gone into the former, and the latter is a muscle we’ve only just discovered we can build.

circular economy biological loop - make, consume, enrich; technical loop - make, use return

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The Circular Economy is a concept and model which has been around for some time now, but is increasingly gaining traction – the UK’s leading waste & recycling organisation, WRAP UK have recently rebranded themselves as ‘Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency Experts’.

The Circular Economy seeks to shift activity from a linear to a circular model by making better use of materials, by keeping materials in circulation through reuse and recycling, industrial symbiosis and other efforts to divert material from landfill.

It displaces some demand for new materials, but does not address the rate at which materials enter the circle, as evidenced by total material demand continuing to grow faster than recycling rates improve.

It is vital to maintain a focus on bending the Linear Economy (‘take-make-waste’) into a Circular Economy, but it is not enough.

There is an entire, parallel area of territory yet to be explored, which I will call The Access Economy (aka Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy) – or being able to access what we need by better using what we already have.

image of a drill - caption 'I do not need a drill - I need a hole in the wall'

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The Access Economy seeks to minimise the demand for materials, and is as – if not more – significant than The Circular Economy. There are also overlaps between the two eg. reuse could be considered Circular and Access.

The rapidly-gaining momentum of the collaborative (aka sharing) economy holds huge potential for addressing how we consume resources, and ways it could result in less waste.

The Access Economy is focused not on managing material at end-of-life, of better managing ‘waste’. It is focused on designing systems that facilitate more efficient, cost effective and in many case, community-enhancing ways of enabling people to meet their needs by tapping what is already available and leveraging idle assets (be they stuff, time, space, skills).

This means looking at the design of our living systems – how we grow food and prepare it; how we clothe and transport ourselves; how we meet our daily needs. We need to look at how we can solve the pain points of people’s lives – cost of living, time poverty –in a way that also delivers on environmental objectives.

The systems for The Access Economy are different from those for The Circular Economy – and significantly they may be more appealing to people who don’t see themselves as ‘green’, or really care about recycling. 

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are symptoms, outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

We are now far from the traditional, familiar territory of the Circular Economy, but into an exciting new realm we have scarcely begun to explore that is fast gathering momentum around the world.

What would we be capable of if we combined the existing strength of the Circular Economy with the emerging juggernaut of the Access Economy?

This article originally appeared at Cruxcatalyst.com

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avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 37 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon

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