Environmental Researcher & Strategist Shares Insights Into Sustainability

by Tara Dickinson

In July 2021 we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jennifer Russell, Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech, who is committed to research and education on the value, potential, and tangible opportunities of circular economy. Her expertise lies in Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility, Efficiency Analysis, Environmental Awareness, and Strategic Leadership. For more information visit her website here.

Tara Dickinson: Circular economy-can you please explain it to us in simple terms? 

Jennifer Russell: Circular Economy is a new way of thinking about our economy by trying to move people away from the conventional way of producing and consuming things, such as buy and toss. The practice of making, buying, using, and then throwing things away is called the Linear Economy. The linear model is a use and lose one,while a circular economy looks for innovative ways of making that line more circular, by keeping materials and products in-use, for longer, and using materials that are regenerative.

TD: And how do we implement that? And what are the benefits?

JR: There are several methods of taking something old and making it new again. 

  1. Reuse- something as simple as hand-me-downs is an example of the circular model. This is simple and anyone can participate. There are many other complex, advanced technologies that can be used in a circular economy, like remanufacturing. When we reuse something, we give it a second (or third) service life with a new user. Reuse can happen through donation, gifting, or selling second-hand.
  2. Repair- we can give an item new life by repairing, refurbishing, or rebuilding it. The idea is to invest effort to maintain something, or to keep it working for longer.
    1. The benefits are twofold; one, the item doesn’t go to the landfill. And two, you’re offsetting a lot of environmental impacts that would occur if you had to manufacture another brand-new item to fulfil that consumer need.  
    2. This way, we can reduce the loss of valuable materials and products by keeping them in the system, and avoid environmental harm from tossing them and making new ones. 

TD: How are businesses responding?

JR: Businesses are getting excited to see the opportunity for innovation and creativity, and that they don’t have to throw away the existing business model. Many companies are working to incorporate new alternatives when consumers are done with a product, like product-take back programs. It’s actually a big movement right now. In the last 5 years we’ve seen a surge in industry leadership trying to engage with and support the idea of a circular economy. It’s refreshing to see industry members taking initiative alongside policy makers in this movement. Expectation of consumers is driving a lot of that.

TD: Are there social impacts that go along with this model?

JR: There definitely can be. A lot of people are trying to ensure that these big system changes include social measures to keep the circular economy accessible – these are not just ideas for the rich western world. There is a huge push for a conscious social perspective on many fronts, and this includes efforts to shift to more circular economy models. A big part of this is building a system to manage end-of-life items so that they are not sent to developing economies to be managed.

TD: Can you share some examples?

JR: The circular economy is exciting especially when in regards to reuse.

  1. Reuse often comes with a lower price point, meaning consumers can get things they need at lower price points. 
  2. This can mean that more people are able to participate in the economy because they have access to things they need and want, at a more affordable price.
  3. For example, many companies now offer lines of certified refurbished or remanufactured versions of the products (like electronics) that consumers can buy at a lower price than the newest model.
  4. Consignment clothing and thrift stores help lower income folks by offering clothes at lower price points. Online reuse platforms are exploding right now, providing a space for consumers to post the items they no longer want, find a buyer, and complete a transaction very fast and conveniently. All this leads to less materials going into a landfill, and contributes to consumers having to buy less new stuff.
  5. Used cars make a good example as well. They are not necessarily upgraded, but they are functional and offered at a discount, so people who can’t afford new ones can participate.

TD: I recently became aware of the impacts of fast fashion and how many millions of pounds of clothing end up in landfills every year as well as destroying the environment with cotton being one of the most toxic crops.

JR: Right. The circular economy doesn’t address all elements of sustainability, but it’s a starting point for addressing over-consumption. The circular economy is different because it doesn’t say “do without, stop buying clothes”. Instead, there are options to  buy them responsibly; buy second-hand; buy durable so it lasts longer; donate it when you’re done with it. 

I recently got a dose of humility when talking to my grandmother. I was explaining the research I was doing in regards to a circular economy for the United Nations. My grandma looked at me like I was crazy and said, “We’ve been doing this forever!” And she’s right! This isn’t such an innovative idea. What we’re now doing is innovating to improve on the conventional economic model that has led to a lot of damage and challenges. Now is a time to progress.

TD: What are some of the explicit benefits for the environment? 

JR: When you reuse, there is a chance to avoid 100% of the environmental footprint of a brand new product. We do have to take into account emissions from transport but as long as the product is functional it makes a difference. The important part of this is that buying reused products must displace buying new ones. If we just buy more of everything, we’re not really solving the problem. A few examples of reuse that don’t work well for the environment relate to products that have a lot of impact during their “use-phase” – we don’t want to keep refrigerators and ancient cars that both gobble up power and gas. But furniture, electronics, and clothing are all perfect examples where reuse can be 100% beneficial.

TD: What’s another shift we can make towards the circular economic model?

JR: It’s about awareness and good intentions. The key to remember is value. Just because you no longer want something doesn’t mean it has zero value. For example, furniture. You may find a piece that feels old and dated, bulky and not your style. To someone else, this is a valuable prized antique collectible. Value is in the eye of the beholder. The greater population at large tends to ignore craftsmanship, materials, all of the energy that went into making something. This embodied investment often gets forgotten when we no longer want the item anymore. Making that item available for reuse allows the value of the item to be realized. 

Phones are another great example. We can’t see all the precious metals in them but they are there and have real value. When we start to see and appreciate what constitutes value, it can help to shift us away from being consumers to users. Powerful way of thinking about the circular economy. 

TD: Can you share some statistics of the circular economy? 

JR: This is a bit hard to define as collecting data is tricky.

  1. Formal reuse, or direct reuse, what happens when commercial businesses are involved, for example Remoov is easier to track as this system goes back to the marketplace. ​​Benefits of Furniture Reuse.
  2. Indirect reuse statistics such as yard sales, hand me downs, donations- there is  no data on any of that.
  3. We don’t know how much reuse is happening. We know it’s out there, and in a wide variety of creative applications and initiatives. A lot of businesses are coming online to arrange this; this is increasing. In the U.S. data from those businesses are not reported separately, so we don’t know how much money is going to reused products.
  4. We can come up with approximate discounts on a reuse item that is around 40-50% of current market price. That tells us at the product level the individual user is saving that much.
  5. For example, on used cars, the buyer may be getting a 40-60% discount compared to a new one. With all types of products, the discount depends on many factors: the car brand, the quality, how old it is, the aesthetics, etc. 
    1. A general rule we can believe in is that a meaningful price reduction is in place and constitutes a saving for the consumer. 
    2. This may allow for individuals with lower income levels to engage in a market they may not be able to otherwise.

TD: Great points; I think everyone loves getting a good deal. I know I sure do! How much money is spent in a circular economy?

JR: We don’t know but estimated projections:

  1. Estimated net benefits of $500M US and 100k new jobs in 5 years- just in materials for a single project. [For full facts check Economic Benefits & Opportunities of Circular Economy by the Ellen MaCarthur Foundation].

TD: Final thoughts?

JR: The most important motive is that resources are finite. We don’t have enough materials on the planet to support current levels of consumption, and we will run out. We need to spearhead innovation that leads to more circular, sustainable forms of production and consumption. How can we ramp up recycling, help with reuse and repair activities? Reuse is critical. It is the number one starting point because everyone, everywhere, can engage in that. 

Jennifer Russell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech, Sustainable Biomaterials | College of Natural Resources & Environment. E: [email protected] | jenniferdrussell.com | LinkedIn 

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