Ellen Williams on the ecosystem approach to sustainably managing economies
Our economies are not unlike ecosystems; in both systems, interactions occur between components that result in resources and services being produced and consumed. So why are production and consumption patterns in our economies resulting in global biodiversity loss and climate change, while these patterns in natural ecosystems do not?
As with most of our problems, the answer can be found in nature. In ecosystems, production and consumption patterns of resources and services are cyclic, so no inputs are wasted. In current economies, production and consumption patterns are linear, with resources and services being designed to be manufactured, used and then disposed of as waste. Redesigning our linear economies to mimic natural cyclic processes within our planet’s capacity provides part of the solution to sustainable human existence.
Our current linear economic system has led to many of the crises we are experiencing today. This ‘take-make-waste’ economic system has degenerated natural systems, polluted our environments, and contributed to socioeconomic inequality. There is an acceleration now, in the looming shadow of the climate crisis, towards a circular economy. One that seeks to regenerate the natural world, enabling closed-loop and regenerative production and consumption patterns (1). The circular economy provides opportunities for companies to ‘do’ sustainable business and meet sustainability targets by seeking to be regenerative by design. Companies are increasingly recognising this, and so the global race to implement a circular economy’s practices is well under way, across industries including manufacturing, construction, energy and textiles (2).
Circular economy in many ways embodies the ecosystem approach – a systems-level strategy that integrates land, water and living resource management to promote biodiversity conservation (3). Natural ecosystems are self-sufficient and sustainable systems that are continuously evolving to optimise resource use efficiency within their boundaries. When a species overshoots on these boundaries and causes irreversible damage to an ecosystem, the whole health of the system experiences detrimental effects. Consider eutrophication, the process through which algal blooms (stimulated by increased nitrogen and phosphate concentrations leached from agricultural fields) deoxygenate freshwater systems. By continuously growing within a healthy living system, the algae species depletes the overall system of its resources. Death throughout the freshwater ecosystem is the natural regulator in this case.
Appreciating the link between circular economy principles and natural cyclic processes found in ecosystems will enable truly regenerative circular economies to be designed and implemented. Additionally, appreciating how natural systems ‘solve’ the ecosystem equivalent of the economic production and consumption problems that humans are facing further increases the intrinsic value of the natural world (necessary for driving long-term conservation). Through exploring biomimicry in the three core principles of a circular economy (1), this article aims to increase these appreciations.
Waste is a human concept that does not exist in nature and underpins the major difference between the sustainability of ecosystems and economies. In human economies, ‘waste’ includes resource loss from over-exploiting non-renewable resources and mismanaging renewable ones by using them faster than they can regenerate (4). In natural ecosystems, no individual components take more than needed. Consider birds building nests or bees collecting nectar for honey production – the energy required for resource collection and associated service provisioning is expended when necessary.
Technology has increased the efficiency of human activity so much that it no longer requires more than a few clicks for a whole week’s supply of food to be obtained. By decreasing how much energy is needed for such tasks, humans can now obtain more products and services. In parallel, outdated 20th century GDP ‘growth’ targets and the ‘consumeristic culture’ of capitalism and linear economies is increasing greed and selfishness across many societies (5). Together, these result in many individuals taking (and expecting) more than necessary and, upon realising this, the production of huge quantities of waste – in 2020, UK households produced over 27 million tonnes of waste (6).
Although essential, changing culture to eliminate waste could take longer than the time currently available to meet sustainability targets and pledges. Therefore, until leading industries and organisations model this ethical change, we should also promote resource and energy circulation.
Resource and energy circulation
To prevent waste, resources and energy should be circulated in economies in their product or material form, and, if not possible, then as their components or raw materials (1). By doing so, finite materials are kept in the economy and biodegradable ones are safely returned to the environment.
Economic processes to promote resource and energy circulation mimic those in natural ecosystems. Consider the remains from a carnivore feeding or deadwood left on the ground from a storm. For both, microorganisms decompose the materials to return nutrients and minerals through soil production. Plants absorb and accumulate these nutrients and minerals using their roots through photosynthesis-powered growth, which herbivores then consume to obtain energy for biological functioning. No materials or products leave the system, everything is recycled. To mimic these processes, product design should include biodegradable materials, and where impractical, product reuse, repair, refurbishment, and remanufacture before individual product components are recycled.
To do so, current legislation must update and innovate, with countries taking inspiration from others around them. In 2003, Germany established a bottle return system – the Pfand (7). Upon purchasing certain products in bottle containers, consumers pay a deposit for the container, which they receive back when they return the empty container to a supermarket for reuse or recycling. In 2009, Rwanda became the first ‘plastic-free’ nation where anyone caught with a plastic bag faces a jail sentence of up to six months. Sweden’s recycling system is so efficient that less than 1% of household waste goes to landfill (8). In comparison, 66% of UK household waste goes to landfill (6). But whatever countries decide, at the heart of their decision-making should be the one factor that all life, societies and economies depend on – nature.
Minimising demand for virgin materials through circulating resources and energy provides time and space for nature to regenerate. Respecting nature like this enables biodiversity to flourish and our natural capital (the wealth of ecosystem services and resources that all human societies and economies are completely dependent upon) to replenish. Our planet is a closed system and so natural capital is not an infinite resource. Natural capital can only benefit humans if ecosystems are correctly managed to be healthy and functioning. Through leveraging circular economy principles, companies and nations will ensure that all economic activity is regenerative and uses resources wisely to enable nature and people thrive on our planet together.
Ellen Williams, PIEMA, is a digital water consultant at Arup
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2022. Available online: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org
- Dey, P.K., Malesios, C., Chowdhury, S., Saha, K., Budhwar, P., De. D., 2022. Adoption of circular economy practices in small and medium-sized enterprises: Evidence from Europe. Int. J. Production Economics 248 (2022) 108496.
- Convention on Biological Diversity, 2021. Ecosystem Approach. Available online: https://www.cbd.int/ecosystem/
- Marín-Beltrán, I., Demaria F., Ofelio C., Serra, L.M., Turiel, A., Ripple, W.J., Mukul, S.A., Clara Costa, M., 2022. Scientists’ warning against the society of waste. Science of the Total Environment 811 (2022) 151359.
- Arli, D., Tjiptono, R., 2022. Selfishness and Consumer Ethics: Does (non)religiosity matter? J Philantr Mark. 27(4): e1751.
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2022. UK statistics on waste. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-waste-data/uk-statistics-on-waste
- DPG Deutsche Pfand system GmbH, 2022. Available at: https://dpg-pfandsystem.de/index.php/en/
- Sweden EPA, 2022. Available at: https://www.naturvardsverket.se/en
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