The circular economy is a new paradigm for global prosperity within the boundaries of our planet. Harald Friedl, CEO of Circle Economy – winner of Most Innovative CEO of the Year, Netherlands – explains this fundamental long term sustainability concept.   

In contrast to the Take-Make-Waste pattern of consumption in today’s linear economy, a circular economy is founded on re-use, re-cycling and re-manufacturing. As CEO of Circle Economy, a not-for-profit social enterprise which accelerates global transition to a circular economy, Harald combines belief in pragmatism with passion to inspire and motivate others.

Under Harald’s leadership, Amsterdam-based Circle Economy, has doubled in size and turnover, while pioneering close collaboration between its membership of corporates, SMEs, start-ups and public sector organisations. The business-backed social enterprise has developed diverse, action-oriented programmes to spearhead circularity innovations in business and governments.

Prior to his current role, Harald previously worked as Head of Office for the Assistant Secretary General in New York, and as acting spokesperson for the Deputy Prime Minister of Austria. He co-founded Myanmar’s first pre-incubation programme for social enterprises and Impact Hub, Myanmar, and was responsible for local market development for a global leader in electro-mechanical hydropower projects.

Harald has experience in journalism and media presentation and is an internationally renowned speaker, championing circular economy thinking at the World Economic Forum and as co-author of the annual Circularity Gap report.

Here we look at the work of Circle Economy, the concepts behind a circular economy, and Harald’s perspective on its importance to future generations.

Could you briefly explain the circular economy model and why it’s important?   

A circular economy is a new concept of economic value within the natural limits of the environment and finite resources. It begins at home, by eliminating waste through measures such as repairing, recycling and re-manufacturing products.

Looking around the world today, we see countless examples of climate change, pollution and devastation caused by our current obsession with consumerism. Icecaps are melting, oceans are inundated with plastics and the ecosystem is failing to a point where it’s already irreplaceably damaged.

A truly circular economy – in which governments, businesses and public sector organisations collaborate to eliminate waste – is the only answer because it’s based on sustainability rather than exhausting our natural resources. Circular thinking is a real opportunity to protect the environment for our children and future generations. The onus is on us to implement it.

Haven’t we become far more environmentally friendly with the adoption of recyclable products and packaging?  

It’s true that in the 21st century many more people are conscious of the problems inherent in our current linear economy. More of us understand the dangers of our Take-Make-Waste economy. Many countries, including my adoptive home in the Netherlands, are adopting new strategies to implement circular principles.

At the same time, the findings of our 2019 Circularity Gap Report show just how far we have still to go. Today, the global economy is only 9 per cent circular.  This means that just 9 per cent of the 92.8 billion tonnes of materials – the fossil fuels, metals, and so on which enter the economy every year – are re-used. In other words, we either waste, or fail to make sustainable use of, 91% of everything we consume.

Global use of materials is increasing year on year, tripling since 1970 and according to the UN International Resource Panel could double again by 2050.  Clearly this is not sustainable – we live in a resource constrained world and we’re also coping with rapid population growth. Therefore, it’s vital that individuals, cities, businesses and governments collaborate and share knowledge and innovative circular economy schemes to recycle more, repair, reuse and reduce waste.

Can you give us demonstrable examples of circular economy schemes operating today?

We’ve worked with many multinationals, including for example Royal Philips, the healthcare and technology group. Philips supply complex equipment for hospitals and clinics. By encouraging these clients to re-think their relationship with equipment suppliers, Philips is able to recycle and re-manufacture complex equipment. Modular design means that even very high-tech machines can re-use elements from broken, outdated or obsolete parts that previously would have gone to landfill.

Food waste is also a major problem. One city realised that waste accounted for a third of the bread it produced every day. A beer company stepped in and announced that it could brew beer from this waste.  This is a simple example demonstrating that that where one part of a system may consider something to be waste, another part is willing to pay for it.

On a smaller scale, individuals and families can all contribute to the wider circle economy landscape. We can repair our clothes or buy second-hand. We can invest in co-operatives, helping farmers to grow vegetables using biowaste from surroundings rather than artificial fertilisers. We can buy from cleantech companies.

Doing simple things like this makes us role models for our children, teaching them the importance of protecting our environment.

The Netherlands is adopting circular economy strategies. Can you tell us more about that?

The Netherlands has a policy to become the world’s first circular ‘hotspot’. That’s a prime example of forward-thinking collaboration between government, scientific experts and industry. They are aiming for a fully compliant circular economy by 2050. That means a public transport system operating electrically-driven trains, reducing CO2 emissions, eco-friendly roads. In parallel, there is a commitment to smart design and manufacturing: to re-use, recycle and repair. The Dutch government has a host of initiatives to promote the circular economy movement, and to attract the entrepreneurs who will make it a reality.

What role does your organisation, Circle Economy, play in building a circular economy?

Our mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We do this via a range of mainly digital tools and services to aid decision-making. We formulate action plans, develop sustainable partnerships and publish reports to spread the word.

The question of how we measure circularity is still contested – it’s work in progress. We are the first organisation to create a global scorecard, the Circularity Gap Report. It’s a frame of reference for circularity that allows us to gauge our progress, or lack of it. We’re about to launch the first national Circularity Gap Report, for Austria. This will be followed by six more national reports. Our approach is already stimulating comparison and competition between states. At the city level, our Circular Economy city scans are having a similar impact among city planners.

How can potential partners and consumers learn more about circular economy in action?

Our website, contains extensive case studies, insights and news. There’s a busy programme of forthcoming events, and links to many of our tools and services, programmes and reports. These include circular construction, design principles, proposals to redesign financial systems, studies of zero waste in manufacturing and cities of the future. The topics we cover are always scalable, which means our research will be relevant across all sectors and industries. We are here to help national and local governments, and both private and public sector organisations.