Want to change the world? Embrace the circular economy!

What on earth is the circular economy and why should you care?

Well, I’m glad you asked…

Today, the vast majority of products we all use every day are made in a linear way. In other words, they are created from some sort of raw materials, used by us (often very briefly) and then thrown away.

When you pause to think about it, this is a pretty wasteful and unsustainable approach. It requires lots of new materials and results in a large amount of lost value and waste.

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Landfill – where most of our stuff ends up in the linear economy

The good news is that there is a quiet revolution underway to change this. Step forward, the circular economy. Increasingly, products are being designed to be circular – that is, to be reused, repaired, remade or recycled into something else. 

Old and new businesses are challenging the linear approach at every stage of the product lifecycle – i.e. how products are sourced, produced, consumed and disposed of. If you want a fuller explanation of the circular economy, then here’s a great one from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It’s all the rage – with everything from a “Circular Economy Week” in the Netherlands (we have one in London in June) to BlackRock launching a new circular economy fund. 

In this blog I’ve collected together some of my favourite examples of circular products, including clothes, phones and toys, to inspire you to give it a try…

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s depiction  of the circular economy

 

Re-use

Why own something when you can hire it? From Michelin tyres to Rolls Royce jet engines and Philips lighting, some big companies are transforming their business models to offer goods as a service. Unless you own a plane or fleet of trucks, here are some great examples of things that you and I can now hire too…

Hirestreet – a clothes rental service for premium brands. For £9 to £100+ you can rent an outfit for 4 to 16 days, breaking the habit of needing to buy something new. You get to try out different styles, pay less and do better for the environment. According to their website, no clothes end up in landfill.

Unpackaged – have worked with the organic veg box company Able & Cole to launch the first refill delivery service for kitchen staples and cleaning products based around VIPs (Very Important Pots). In an interesting twist, they have deliberately designed the VIPs to be ugly, so that customers decant and return them rather than making them a permanent part of their kitchens!

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Able & Cole’s VIPs – Very Important Pots

And a couple for all the parents out there…

Whirli – a subscription toy box for children aged 0 to 7 years old. From £9.99 a month, you get a box full of toys of your choosing. When your baby gets bored of one, you post it back and get another in its place. Not only can the toy then be used by someone else but your home doesn’t fill up with toys you no longer need. Another perk is that if your baby loves a toy enough to keep it for 9 months, then you can decide to keep it for free.

Bundlee – for £24 a month you can rent baby clothes and swap up for the next size whenever you like. Given your baby will need 7 different sizes of clothes in their first 2 years, this makes a lot of sense. Renting them avoids you having piles of old clothes around the house, saves money and is good for the environment. Bundlee claim that their model extends the lifespan of clothes by up to 400%.

 

Repair

Whatever happened to repairing things? We live in a culture where even if you want to repair something, it can be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to do so. A number of businesses are seeking to change that…

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The modular Fairphone 3 – designed to be easy to repair

Fairphone – Mobile phones are packed with valuable materials such as gold, silver and rare earth metals, yet many are just thrown in the bin when contracts come to an end. By contrast, Fairphones are ethically sourced and designed to be modular, so if one part breaks then it can be replaced without needing a whole new phone. If this is too big a step for you and you remain attached to your iPhone like me, then it’s good to know that for £49 you can get the battery changed in an Apple shop and it will feel as good as new.

MUD jeans – a Dutch company innovating a “Hire A Jean” model that takes sustainable jeans to the next level. You pay a monthly fee and they will repair your jeans if they get damaged and take them back to repurpose them into a new pair when you are done with them. I’ve tried them out and they are great – see my previous blog.

 

Remake

One person’s waste is another’s treasure. That’s certainly the case for these start-ups who are making amazing products from what others are throwing away. Even Meghan Markle was recently spotted enjoying the height of “trashion”, wearing a pair of plastic-bottle shoes and carrying a recycled ocean waste bag…

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The discarded fire hoses that inspired Kresse Wesling

Elvis & Kresse – it began with Kresse Wesling’s penchant for visiting rubbish dumps – “I would sit and stare at the piles of waste and I couldn’t help but think that some of it was beautiful”. They started with a £25 belt made out of old fire hose (I have one and it’s brilliant) and now make accessories from 15 materials including parachute silk, shoe boxes and leather off-cuts.

Pinatex – ever wonder what you could do with all the pineapple husks you throw away? Well, this clever company turns the leaf fibre that is usually discarded from the harvest into a leather substitute, providing a new income for farming communities and removing the need for animal products. It’s now being used by a range of designers to make clothes and accessories.

Sundried – offer two ranges of activewear, one made from 100% recycled plastic and the other from 100% old coffee grounds. The former have a carbon footprint just 80% lower than using new polyester and 65% lower than cotton.

And returning to where we started, Rothy’s, the maker of Meghan’s high-end shoes, has recycled almost 50 million plastic bottles since its launch in 2016.

 

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg – there are plenty more out there. I hope you feel inspired to “think circular” the next time you’re about to buy something that will soon be thrown away.

Reusable nappies and baby wipes – the verdict

You may have noticed that this blog has been quiet for a while. Well that’s what having your first child does to you! The sleepless nights did allow me to catch-up on all eight series of Game Of Thrones though, so it’s not all bad.

Anyway, little Charlie is now 12 weeks old and it felt like the right time to report back on how our reusable nappy and baby wipe missions are going (see previous blog for context).

I’m sorry to say that it has all been a miserable failure.

Nah, only joking. Both have actually been a great success. Let’s take the wipes first.

Reusable baby wipes

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A Washable Wipes Kit

The Cheeky Wipes (other brands are available) – essentially small squares of material with a before and after box – are a no-brainer. One wipe goes way further than a baby wipe, they are softer on the baby’s skin and they can be washed and reused over and over. By my calculations we’ve already saved over 2,500 wipes from going in the bin / down the loo in 12 weeks (4 per nappy change and 8 nappy changes a day). By the time he is two and a half years old, we’ll have saved over 20,000 wipes.

One recommendation though, go for the colourful microfibre wipes not the white, cotton ones. The former dry fast on a drying rack and retain their bright colours. The latter turn yellow once they have encountered baby poo and become a bit abrasive if not tumble-dried (undermining the energy-saving benefits).


Reusable nappies

The reusable nappies have also been a success.

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Charlie rocking his super cool reusable nappy

Before Charlie was born, we used the questionnaire on the The Nappy Lady website and advice from a few of our friends to identify a couple of nappy types that might work for us. We started by buying two of each of these and giving them a go once he arrived. This turned out to be a good idea, as we – and Charlie – much preferred one type to the other.

12 weeks on and we have gradually been buying more and more – we now have ten in circulation. They are just as simple to put on as disposable nappies and on the whole do a better job at containing the regular poo explosions than their throw-away cousins (sorry, newborn parents just love to talk about poo).

Having more of them has actually reduced both the chores and the environmental impact. We now have a nappy bucket, which takes about 48 hours fill up and then we do one 60-degree wash overnight with all the dirty nappies and wipes. Both have mesh bags, so you don’t need to touch any of the contents. They are dry and ready to use again by mid afternoon the following day.

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Reusable nappies drying quickly overnight

One of the things that has helped us to embrace reusables is not being too militant about it. We do also have biodegradable Kit and Kin nappies (the brainchild of former Spice Girl Emma Bunton!) and biodegradable nappy bags that we use as well (though see previous blog for issues with biodegradable nappies). We’ve found these particularly useful for holidays and when we are out and about. 

So long as you are using your reusables enough to make the environmental and financial investment worthwhile, then every single time you are doing so you are keeping a nappy out of landfill. Doing the sums, we have already saved around 450 nappies (assuming 8 nappies a day for 8 weeks to account for using the biodegradable ones too). At this rate, we’ll avoid using over 4,000 disposable nappies over the next two and a half years.

One word of warning, we had a big baby (8lb, 13oz – Sarah you are amazing!) so the reusables just about fitted him from the start. For a smaller baby it may make sense to wait a few weeks until they have grown a bit and the number of nappy changes has reduced. Buying lots of reusable nappies that will only fit for a few months is not good for the environment (unless you plan to use them again for other children or sell them on).

These successes got me thinking about what other ways there are to embrace the circular economy and be more sustainable with a baby. More on that to come next month…

The unfortunate truth about “eco” nappies (and what you can do about it)

The biodegradable nappy myth

With my wife and I expecting our first baby in the coming weeks, two things made me think it was important to look into reusable nappies.

1. By the time they are potty trained, a baby will have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies.

2. A “biodegradable” nappy – one that’s not made from plastic – that ends up in landfill is worse for climate change than a disposable nappy.

The first point is unsurprising and even more startling at a national level. An estimated 3 billion nappies are thrown away each year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste.

The second point is counter-intuitive and probably requires more explanation. A biodegradable nappy will only biodegrade as intended if it ends up in either a large, well-managed personal compost heap or a council food / garden waste commercial composter. Less than 50% of UK households have such a collection and many simply do not have the space for their own compost heap. So for the majority of babies in the UK their biodegradable nappies will end up in landfill or being burnt. 

And here’s the crux: in a covered and compressed landfill site, biodegradable nappies (and their contents) will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane – which is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A normal disposable nappy made out of plastic will actually produce fewer harmful emissions.

As for reusable nappies – made to wash and use again – it’s true that it does take more energy to put them through the washing machine than to throw disposables in the bin. However, there are a number of ways to minimise this. The days of boil-washing are gone, as modern reusables can be washed at 60 or even 40 degrees. If drying space is an issue for you, then there are many brands which dry fast without a tumble-dryer. And to top it all off, you can sign-up for 100% renewable electricity for your home, meaning that the energy you are using will be coming from green sources in any case.

The reusable nappy revolution

So, that set me off on a journey to discover if there was a realistic alternative to disposables. What I found was actually pretty encouraging. 

This blog is not meant to be preachy or naive and I’m acutely aware that it is written before the realities of having a newborn baby have hit. It is simply intended to help those who, like I did, feel uncomfortable about throwing away 1000s of nappies and want to explore what alternatives are out there…

Oh, and one other word of warning. If you are the eco-warrior in the household then please be sensitive to your partner in any nappy discussions, particularly if they are going to be the one at home with the baby and thus doing the majority of the changing. Whatever solution you come up with, it needs to work for you both.

Now, be honest, when you think of a reusable nappy does your mind conjure up something that looks a bit like this…?

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It certainly did for me. But the good news is that a modern reusable nappy actually looks like this…

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Indeed, they are now so snazzy that there is now a “cloth bumming” trend (yes, that is really what it’s called…) taking Instagram by storm!

So, now that you can see how reusable nappies will make your baby the envy of the creche, how do you go about finding the right ones?

There’s no right answer, but here’s what worked well for us…

Firstly, we used this excellent questionnaire on The Nappy Lady website. It asks you a wide range of questions and then gives you two recommendations. For us, ensuring that they would be simple to use and dry quickly in our small flat (with very limited outdoor space) were the two biggest priorities. 

Secondly, some of your friends and family with babies will already be using reusable nappies. Ask them which have worked best for them.  This gave us a shortlist of half a dozen reusable nappies and – using the The Nappy Lady’s reviews – we picked those that might be best for us. 

“Might” is an important word here. There are wise warnings about reusables not working for all newborns, so you will want to make sure that the brand you have chosen is a good fit. What you don’t want to do is buy loads in advance and then not be able to use them (though I hear there is a thriving second-hand market in reusable nappies too…). This is easy to get around: many brands have trial packs, or you can buy a few and use them alongside disposable nappies in the first few weeks until you are confident they are a good match for your baby.

Why not throw in some cheeky wipes?

A quick note on baby wipes. While not such a big issue from a climate change perspective, the UK has woken up to the damage that wet wipes are doing to our sewers and our seas. There’s even a suggestion that the UK Government could ban them.

Lucky enough, this is an easy one to do something about.

One option is flushable wipes, with businesses scrambling to make their offerings better for the world. 

A more sustainable option still are Cheeky Wipes, the worst kept secret in baby class circles where I have been spending a lot of time recently. Parents across the UK swear by them, as being better for your baby and cheaper in the long run.

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I hope this has given you a good head start in your quest to throw away fewer nappies. I’ll report back on how we are getting on in a few months…