Circular economy? We’ve done that before!

The sun is setting in the west and with it cometh the darkness. The darkness shrouding the whole world. Shrouding it in a thick blanket of smog and emissions. That is unless we take measures against it. By now we are all familiar with the issue of climate change. We have heard the grave consequences climate change can have if we carry along the way we have been doing. We know about the solutions available to humanity to turn the tide on climate change. But it requires a great effort from everyone to change. Change our lifestyles and consumption patterns. Lots of focus is on reducing our consumption intake, but less attention is being spent on the concept of circular economy.

A circular economy not only focuses on the product itself and the production process, but a circular economy focuses on all by-, waste- and others usages a product has. A circular economy aims to use all the resources we have available in the most efficient way. It also aims to recycle all the resources we use. The ultimate aim is to not need any new resources for the product you are going to make. All the resources come from renewable and/or recycled resources. This way of designing our economy will prevent our society from falling back to the dark ages. Or will it?

Looking at medieval and early industrial societies we can find similarities with a circular economy. These societies were mostly based on agriculture as most of the population lived on the countryside. City life was still pretty basic, but what drew people to cities was the promise of money and the crafts. The craftsman worked with very basic tools and materials.


Creating with those tools very basic, but also very sustainable products. Products that where sustainable because they were used until they couldn’t be used no more. The reason is that the products were costly. Getting a coat from a craftsman was expensive. So any holes that appeared on a coat would be patched. The coat wouldn’t be thrown away. Life was of course much simpler back then, but there are some lessons we can learn from those days.

The most important lesson is that people are less reckless with products if they know its value. Economies of scale have made the products we buy very cheap. Currently it is cheaper to buy a new item than to repair it. Every attempt we make to establish a circular economy will have to deal with this reality. People are driven by incentives and the most powerful incentive is economical. So what do we need to do to switch to a circular economy?

First of all it would be wise to value the products we buy more. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to cost more. It does mean however that somewhere in the production chain there needs to be an incentive to stimulate repairing, refurbishing and reusing products. I think this could be best achieved by either charging more for waste or paying people for certain types of waste.

A craftsman at work

Paying people a (low) fee for certain products might sound like a strange idea. It’s strange in the fact that it hasn’t been done before. People will get an incentive to separate their waste, so there is no need for expansive separation facilities. Next to that we can bring back the craftsman/woman back to the city. The craftsman can get the materials for a small fee and create products with it. Ensuring that materials get reused and adding value to the materials.

With a huge student population looking to earn some money along their studies, Leiden would be an ideal proving ground for this idea. The best materials to start this with would be materials that are easy to work with. Materials like clothing and furniture. After food, these are probably the most traded items in a student city. So to make the switch to a circular economy, this would probably be the best move to take us back to the dark ages. Bring the crafts back to Leiden!


2 thoughts on “Circular economy? We’ve done that before!”

  1. Very nice blog Martijn, I really like the idea, I think this might work to get rid of our consuming addiction.
    I was just wondering if we globally apply a mas reparation instead of the current mass production, if the price of the new products might get very high, which might lead to stagnation of the development of new products? How could we ensure this does not happen?


    1. Thanks for your question Onno! Basic economics will probably make sure this doesn’t happen. The price of products is not only determined by the cost of production, but mainly by the demand for the product. In the case of mass reparation there would be a drop in demand which will in effect reduce the price for the items. This does indeed stagnate the need for development, but low prices will also ensure that demand of the product increases. Which will increase the potential for development again.
      The total decreased amount of demand by mass reparation will probably drive up the cost price of goods. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the total revenue of producers decreases. I think the producers will be stimulated by this to create more lasting products instead of the disposable products that are being produced at the moment.
      I’m not sure what will happen with development when a full circular economy has been reached though. This might indeed be troublesome for development in some sectors.


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