Fight Waste: Patrick vs Unhappiness

Patrick Hypscher, Co-Founder Green PO & Podcast-Host Circularity.fm, is on a mission to eliminate waste. This month, Patrick takes on the tragedy of happiness. Find out why shifting towards appreciating and valuing what we already have can also lead toward a more circular economy.

by Patrick Hypscher | Jul 9, 2024

A tragedy of human happiness is that we humans tend to undervalue what we have and long for what we don’t have. I believe that there is a similar tragedy of circularity.

Take the perspective of a car manufacturer that wants to become more circular. It looks for ways to get access to its old cars. But at the end of their lives, most of these cars are not in Germany anymore: While every year 3.4 million cars are manufactured in Germany, only 0.4 million are recycled at German authorized treatment facilities. Where does the car manufacturer get enough circular input material from?

Contrary, if the city of Berlin wants to reduce e-waste, it must redirect thousands if not millions of consumer electronic devices in Berlin’s waste streams. But almost 0% of these devices are produced in Berlin, most of them also not in Germany and Europe. Where to deliver the end-of-live consumer electronics to?

A large spatial product distribution makes closed loop strategies expensive and challenging. My iPhone was very likely produced in China. In a closed loop system, the products and resourced loop back to the place of their origin. This can be the brand, the manufacturer or even the plant in which that product was produced. If this place of origin is on the other side of the planet, it might neither be commercially nor environmentally beneficial to ship it to its origin.

There can be a solution to that: open-loop systems. In an open loop system, the product‘s components and materials are used by other organisations: Other brands, other manufacturers or other plants. The product is not waste. Someone else uses it as an input for new products. The resources recovered from consumer electronics could be used for car components.

Open loop systems do exist already. A few materials circle in open loops already: steel, paper, glass and plastic packaging. But with the global circularity rate at 7.8%, this is not enough.

There are practices companies can use for closed loop strategies:

  • A deposit scheme gives customers an incentive to return the product to the manufacturer – as done by Shift with the device deposit
  • A discount for other purchases makes trading-in products attractive as well, even for products from other brands – as MUD Jeans does it for jeans
  • Keeping products inside a Product-as-a-Service ensures that products are under the control of the provider

Also, open-loop approaches can benefit from the several practices:

  • Designing products for recycling in the first place, where materials can easily be separated and sorted so that third parties use it as feedstock – as Werner Mertz does for the packaging of its products
  • Relaxing the requirements recycled material needs to meet to create more opportunities for recycled input material – as Volvo did for recycled plastics in the interior of their EX30 car
  • Using compostable materials only so that the product is compostable – as preservation does with their packaging solutions

We live in an open society. An open society comes with an open economy. While closed loop seems to be desirable, it is also neither the norm nor always possible. Even nature is a web of open loops. Appreciating what we have and appreciating what we get is not only a path to more happiness. It is also a path to a more circular economy.