Practical Idealism: The Circular Economy in Action

Evan Bue

I knew the opening remarks from the Circular Economy Tour had come to an end when Keynote speaker George Bandy declared that no longer may we “privatize the wealth while socializing the risk”. With an ounce of skepticism, I listened to the Vice President of Sustainability at Interface, hoping that he had adequate proofs to support his emotionally charged claim. He did.

Mr. Bandy described a project in which Interface sourced raw material for its product from an unexpected place. Floating in the shallow waters off the coast of the Philippine isles lie thousands of tons of discarded fishing net. Waste left behind from commercial fishing, the nets contain the exact fiber needed to create Interface’s new carpet tiles. Over the past 5 years, more than 56,000 KG of this net have been removed from the ecosystem and used to create a sellable product. The waste from one industry becomes the feedstock for another.

The next keynote speaker, Marty Neese, COO of SunPower, took the podium and immediately began by describing, rather fittingly, the operational approach with which he closed the loop in his company’s waste stream. Using already existing environmental certifications, SunPower adapted its manufacturing processes to meet Cradle to Cradle and Circular Economy 100 standards. After this baseline had been established, Mr. Neese incorporated incentives for the engineers so that the material usage loop could be closed even further. He left the podium after describing this final approach:

“Ask R&D how to make solar power more efficient, and you’ll have countless answers.Ask them how to reduce the amount of water used in the manufacturing of these more efficient solar panels, and you’ll get the opposite. We’re changing this.”

Absorbing what I heard, saw, and experienced over the course of the day, I concluded the following: for the idealists, the circular economy can create a new paradigm in which all of the earth’s resources are not only valued monetarily, but intrinsically; for the pragmatists, it opens up new markets by creating value from the previously valueless.

This is practical idealism. This is the circular economy in action.

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