Efficiency vs. effectiveness in the Circular Economy | Infographic by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation
A while ago I wrote about efficiency vs. effectiveness in terms of personal productivity — here’s how similar ideas can be applied to ecology.
Eco-efficiency means minimising the volume and toxicity of the flow of materials that we dispose of. We create things, use them (usually not for very long) and then dispose of them. If we’re being eco-efficient, we reduce the amount of stuff that we buy and we try to dispose of it in the best way possible. Sometimes we’ll be able to recycle, although often the recycled material will only be useful for a limited range of uses — it will be of a lower quality than the original material.
Although this efficiency is certainly better than doing nothing, it doesn’t address the underlying ‘cradle-to-grave’ nature of the system — the fact that things are created (cradle) and ultimately end up as waste (grave).
But there’s an alternative approach — a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ flow of materials, also called the Circular Economy. Rather than accepting that every production process must lead to waste, we instead design our industrial processes such that all outputs are either harmless nutrients (that will benefit the environment) or they’re reusable as inputs for other processes. Rather than having waste, we have a cycle of materials — a closed loop. This is eco-effectiveness.
This isn’t just a theory — it’s being practised around the world. Products can be Cradle-to-Cradle certified, demonstrating that they follow the principles of eco-effectiveness. Many new ideas being developed are built around biomimicry — copying designs that have developed (over millions of years through natural selection) in the natural world. For some specific examples, check out this video on the Circular Economy.
Doughnut Economics gives me hope about the future of environmental policy… the Circular Economy shows how it could actually work.