What is a circular economy?

The African continent is under great pressure to solve the increasing need for food security due to an explosive increase in the population combined with additional challenges from climate change. Furthermore, with the current linear system that is focused on ‘take-make-dispose’, agricultural emissions and waste accumulation are even increasing and contributing further to climate change. Waste accumulation in fasting growing cities even results in other threats such as diseases and other health concerns. Taking these concerns seriously, industries should be completely re-designed in a way that it will fulfil the demands of the growing population in a sustainable manner, while it enhances waste valorization to reduce waste accumulation towards sustainable environmental development. 

Circular economy

An alternative to the linear system is a circular economy which seeks to close the loop of resources through the establishment of restorative and regenerative systems. The most prominent definition of a circular economy is formulated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which is the founding father of circular economy theory. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (1) defines a circular economy as:

[CE] is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains a circular economy based on three principles:

  1. “Design out waste and pollution: a circular economy reveals and designs out the negative impact of economic activity that causes of damage to human health and natural systems” (2). This requires a mindset change that considers waste as input and as a design for new materials and technologies, while biological materials are non-toxic and easily flow back to in the soil by composting or anaerobic digestion (3) (4).
  2. “Keep products and material in use: a circular economy favors activities that preserve value in the form of energy, labour and materials the value in the form of energy, labour and materials. This means designing for durability, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling to keep products, components, and materials circulating in the economy” (5). 
  3. “Regenerate natural systems: a circular economy avoids the use of non-renewable resources where possible and preserves or even enhances the renewable ones” (5).
Figure 1.  Overview of a circular economy as an industry system. Source: (1).

In other words, a circular economy has the potential to:

  • Create green, smart and cost-efficient business models by closing the loop of resources and materials (e.g. waste) in Africa. 
  • Create a win-win situation for companies, since companies spending less on resources and waste management. For instance, other companies can provide waste for free to other companies to add value to the waste rather than paying waste collection fees. 
  • Make profit (from waste) by designing a full circular business model. For instance, organic waste of restaurants can be utilized to produce insect-based animal feed products for chicken farmers. In the next coming articles Circular Africa present showcases of circular economy business models. 
  • Actively contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals such as 2 (responsible consumption and production) and 13 (take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts).
  • Potentials to create a green economy in Africa. African countries are characterized by fast-growing emerging economies, which may not be as strongly committed to a linear economy as developed countries. Therefore, African economies have the potential to establish a green economy and without implementing a linear industrialization. 

Author: Elke Nijman

References of this article

(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2013). Towards the circular economy. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation-Towards-the-Circular-Economy-vol.1.pdf

(2) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2019). Cities and circular economy for food. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/insight/CCEFF_Full-report_May-2019_Web.pdf

(3) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2015a). Towards a circular economy: business rationale for accelerated transition. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/TCE_Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation_9-Dec-2015.pdf

(4) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). What is The Circular Economy? Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy

(5) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2019). Cities and circular economy for food. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/insight/CCEFF_Full-report_May-2019_Web.pdf


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