The value of arts and humanities people for the circular economy

How do we as a society tackle the problem of achieving sustainability?  That is the biggest long-term question facing us right now. The answer could be the ‘Circular Economy’, and the people to implement it are the non-linear creative thinkers of the Arts and Humanities.

You may have heard the phrase ‘circular economy’, it’s a concept that could be the solution to our growing environmental problems.  Put simply, it’s the idea that resources never become waste, but instead are re-used and recycled in continuous loops.  This is in contrast to how the majority of the economy operates at present – the so-called ‘take, make, dispose’ linear economy where resources are used up and never recovered.

Ministry for the Environment, Government of New Zealand
Ministry for the Environment, Government of New Zealand

The circular economy enables us to enjoy better living standards while stopping environmental degradation and depletion of our finite resources; truly a ‘win-win’ solution.

A common misconception is that the circular economy is just ‘recycling’.  Most of us sort at least some of our waste for recycling – and that’s important, but the circular economy is much, much more than that.  It’s not only about material resources, but also about value.  For example, simply taking mixed plastics and re-melting them to make some new product – say, packaging, is a huge drop in value.  Particularly if those plastics were specialised for specific applications; the investment in refining the materials and making them conform to precise technical specifications is lost if they are ‘down-cycled’. So, the circular economy is a whole lot more sophisticated than that, it’s about looking at the bigger picture and thinking in terms of linked systems; the regenerative loops.

The sticking point – and it’s not inconsiderable, is making the regenerative loops work.  And that’s where the special skills of creative people are the key.

To make the circular economy work, what is needed is design imagination and creativity so that not only is every product and service fit for its purpose, but also that it fits within the bigger overall circular system.

In the circular economy there is no such thing as waste, so whatever is made needs to be made from resources that are already available and that can in turn (when their job is done), become the resources for the next link in the system.

So the end result is a series of links in a chain where ‘stuff’ (resources, materials) get passed from one to the next, value is maintained or increased, and each of those links needs to facilitate the next.  But achieving that is no small task.

That is the challenge to the makers and designers in the new circular economy; how to make products and services that fit into the bigger system:

  • How can ‘waste’ materials become useful and valuable products?
  • What kinds of new products and services will people need in the future?
  • How can we design and make new links to help resource recovery and make a circular economy work?

There are some great illustrations of people tackling some of these problems, a quick Google search can bring up some interesting and inspiring examples. How about a beer made from leftover bread? ‘Hardtack’ beer from the Jaw Brew Company in Scotland has won awards for its taste and its circular economy contribution.

Or coffee cups made from coffee grounds?  Kaffee Form based in Germany have been awarded the prestigious Red Dot Design mark for their products – and they’re even dishwasher safe!

Both of these examples take what is currently thought of as zero value ‘waste’ and transform them into high value desirable products.

There are lots more existing examples to find, but what’s needed is for ALL our products and services to be designed in this way.  And this is where the unique skills of designers, makers and artists will come to the rescue.  These people have unique ways of thinking, analysing and communicating; being able to think in new ways, to look at the bigger picture and to come up with innovative solutions outside of the conventional.  Imagination, creativity and problem solving will be the foundation of the transition to a truly sustainable future and so those skills and abilities will be in great demand.  For those people who have an Arts, Design or Humanities degree, those skills will have been developed, demonstrated and honed over their studies and they are ideally placed to drive the innovation needed for the transition to a circular economy.

If you want to explore the circular economy more, an excellent resource that has lots of readily accessible and practical information is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: