Objects accompany our lives: we buy and use hundreds of products. Just think, for example, of the containers, like boxes, jars and bottles, which contain the food we buy at supermarkets; of the paper, pens, pencils and erasers we use at school or in the office every day; of the furniture in our homes and the objects and clothes that are stored in this furniture. We could continue the list, the result would be very long.

Let’s think now about how long the objects we use every day last: most of them have a very short life, we use them and then we throw them away. This happens, for example, with the packaging that contains food or products bought at the supermarket. Boxes containing toothpaste tubes or a toothbrush are immediately thrown away; the same goes for the cardboard that wraps fruit juices, the plastic packages enclosing many vegetables or fruits, and so on. What then happens to the tube of toothpaste when it’s finished and to the toothbrush when it’s worn out? We simply throw them away because they are no longer useful to us. The same applies to all the objects that are part of our lives: when we feel that they are no longer useful, we throw these objects away, turning them into waste.

This way of dealing with consumer goods has been called the “linear economy”. According to this model of production and consumption, the life of each product is essentially marked by five stages: extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. This means that industry extracts virgin raw materials, transforms them to produce consumer goods using labour and energy, distributes the products to the consumer who, after using them, discards what he no longer needs, that is the products themselves, which have now become “waste”. Each stage of a product’s life requires raw materials and energy and generates waste and polluting emissions.

According to this model of economy, every item of consumer goods goes from the cradle to the grave: this means that products have a beginning and an end, in fact, their life ends in the dustbin, where the material becomes waste, unusable for production purposes. It is now globally acknowledged that this use of resources, combined with steady population growth, increasing consumption and often inefficient use of resources, is no longer sustainable. If this trend continues at the current rate, we will find ourselves needing two planets by 2050.

Planned obsolescence

We talk of “planned obsolescence” to define the strategy adopted by the industrial economy, according to which the duration of consumer goods is limited to a preset period. After that time, the product becomes unserviceable or simply obsolete in the eyes of the consumer in comparison to new models on the market, which appear more modern although they are little or no better from a functional point of view. 

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Development of the linear economy

At the turn of the 20th century, mankind experienced a period of rapid economic and scientific growth. The incredible technological development that followed the Industrial Revolution and, above all, the post-World War II period, led to a rapid increase in wealth and, as a result, gave rise to and nurtured the idea of an infinite availability of resources, materials and products. 

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Limitations of the linear production and consumption model

As we have seen, the linear economic model is based on the continuous consumption of objects: for example, a smartphone that is still perfectly functional has to be changed only because a new model has come out; a broken vacuum cleaner is replaced with a new one because doing so costs less than repairing it. 

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It is difficult to trace the concept of the circular economy back to a certain date or a single author. However, practical applications to modern economic systems and industrial processes date back to the 1970s.

Certainly one of the essays that laid the foundations of environmental economics is “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, published in 1966 by Kenneth Boulding. In the essay, Boulding outlines two types of economy, identifying them with two figures, the cowboy and the spaceman: the cowboy merely considers the endless plains that surround him, driven by a continuous thirst for conquest and consumption; the spaceman, on the other hand, is profoundly aware of the system in which he lives, the great spaceship Earth, of its limits and the cycles that regulate its operation. “For the sake of picturesqueness, I am tempted to call the open economy the “cowboy economy”, the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”

Boulding was the first to consider the Earth as a closed system: only from the Earth, just as spacemen do in a spaceship, can Earthlings get the resources they need, and only on Earth can they discard waste and refuse. Energy stocks, therefore, can only be replaced by solar energy while water and raw materials can only be durable if they are reused and recycled. The myth of the expansion of consumption and the economies of individual countries and the world can only lead to a more or less rapidly approaching crisis, precisely because this model is based on a mistaken assumption, which is to consider the resources on our planet as unlimited.

The 1970s and environmental awareness

The 1970s marked the advent of environmental awareness, ecological thinking and the need to adopt a more sustainable economic and lifestyle model. In those years the environmental movement was born on an international scale and in 1972 MIT produced the “Limits to growth” scientific report commissioned by the Club of Rome, to study the problems of scarcity of resources and limits to development.

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The closing circle and the limits of development

In 1971 Barry Commoner, an American biologist born in 1917, wrote in the well-known book “The Closing Circle”: “The Earth’s life system derived from the consumption of a non-renewable resource, on water and on the geochemical store of organic matter (…) survival became possible because of a timely evolutionary development: the emergence of the first photosynthetic organisms (…).”

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Stahel's Circular Economy

Walter R. Stahel is today considered the father of the circular economy and one of the greatest visionaries because he firmly believes that another economy is possible. In 1976, together with Geneviéve Reday-Mulvey, Stahel produced a technical report for the European Commission entitled 'The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy', in which he analysed the issue of resource wastage related to the rapid disposal of consumer goods. 

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Cradle to Cradle

“All the ants on this planet together create a biomass far greater than that of we humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years, yet their productivity has nourished plants, animals, and soil. The same cannot be said of human industry. Human industry has been in business for just over a century, but it has caused the degradation of nearly every ecosystem on the planet. Nature does not have a design problem. Humanity does.”

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From sailing to the circular economy: Ellen MacArthur's story

In 2010, Ellen MacArthur founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an international non-profit organisation established to accelerate transition to a regenerative and circular economy and to make it an effective reality. At present, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is the main operational body for the dissemination of the circular economy internationally, as it works to bring together even complementary schools of thought with the aim of creating a coherent framework.

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