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An interview with Sally-Anne Käsner, Director of Circular Vision

If we have learnt one thing from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that humanity is not separate from the Earth’s ecosystems: we are part of them, so our behaviour impacts the whole planet. Sally-Anne Käsner is the Director of Circular Vision, a South African company that supports organisations to design waste out of their business activities and supply chains. She spoke to us about circularity in practice and how we can learn from nature.

Natural systems produce no waste and have been refined over 4 billion years. Let’s learn from them

 

I used to work as an environmental consultant with an engineering firm, focusing on the sustainability and regulatory side of things. I ensured that clients were compliant with environmental requirements when making applications for new developments. But I was always chasing work that would have a bigger impact, such as how to design waste out of a system altogether, rather than just ensuring that the client was compliant with regulations. As the concept of circularity gathered pace, I knew that we’d be able to leverage it to create more impact, so I decided to establish my own company in 2018, and was finally able to focus on the projects that excited me! 

Our projects to date include working with a university to redesign how they procure and sell services on campus, for example eliminating disposable coffee cups and takeaway containers, and finding reusable and refillable alternatives. 

We also helped a hotel that originally just wanted an industry waste management plan to prove that they were minimising how much waste they sent to landfill. We convinced them to go further and to explore how they could minimise what they were sending to landfill. We looked at their supply chains, what they procure and how they procure it, and developed scorecards to evaluate suppliers. With this system in place, the hotel now only sends 5% of its waste to landfill, and has earned six green stars! Even more excitingly, we’re seeing a shift in mindset at an individual level - and that is how real change occurs.

Another initiative that I am really excited about is the African Circular Economy Network, which is a group of professionals who want to tell the story of circularity in Africa. Our goal is to find ways to amplify the circularity that already exists in the continent; in many ways, the African way of life is already circular, but that is being dismantled by industrialisation and a shift towards a more linear economy. Our network seeks to incorporate old ways into a modern system, demonstrating that a different way is possible and even desirable, before it’s too late.

The current economic model is a linear one: we extract resources, use them to create products and then, when we are finished with the product, we throw it away. We consume and own, and then we discard. This is, in fact, entirely unnatural: nature works in systems, but for some reason, we humans have removed ourselves from those systems, and view ourselves as entirely separate. That sense of separation and our linear economic model are responsible for so many of the huge crises that the planet faces.


Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Adopting a circular economy means exploring how products and services interact with the system - how they function, and how they flow. Materials must be kept flowing through the system at their highest utility for as long as possible, and that means we have to reconsider delivery and external cost. The key reason that we have so much packaging is that brands claim to care for their consumers, and want to give them the most affordable way to buy products. They claim that, if they change their packaging, the product will become unaffordable. But this does not take into account the external cost - the cost that is external to the consumer. So much packaging is un-recyclable and un-reusable, so mostly ends up as litter, in landfill or in our oceans. Brands and manufacturers must factor that external cost into their product design and overheads - which would make normal packaging entirely unaffordable. That would force brands to find alternative delivery models. There are some great examples, like Algramo in Chile which delivers refills to customers, and oil and milk ATMs in Kenya where people can refill their own containers with as much product as they need.

Big corporations must stop thinking with a ‘cradle to gate’ mindset - where the product and its packaging stops being their problem when it reaches the consumer - and start thinking about the product throughout its life cycle.

Unfortunately, organisations still fall back on the excuse that waste is not regulated, so they don’t need to consider the life cycle of their products. However, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is making great inroads with bigger brands by highlighting the economic benefits of a circular mindset. That is the key to the potential of the circular economy concept - it isn’t ‘sold’ on environmental benefits, but economic ones. Money still talks! 

Obviously, the pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, but I believe it offers an opportunity as well. So many of us have reconnected with nature and what’s truly important over the last year, and are looking for ways to improve our relationship with the planet - that desire is there. What’s more, it is easier to start again and implement radical change when things aren’t going great - so many economies are struggling right now, so let’s use circularity to help them recover. 

Unfortunately, governments and policymakers are, on the whole, not on board yet - so we need to work closely with the private sector, for whom the economic benefits are more immediate. If we can persuade organisations and individuals to fundamentally change their behaviour and attitudes, then governments will follow.

The pandemic has certainly shone a light on the way we live: it has forced us to stop, rethink and attempt to understand where we are and how we operate. Sadly, that is partly because so many people have lost their jobs and have therefore not been able to consume as much as they had before: they have had to explore ways to reuse what they already have, create new opportunities for themselves and for their families and, in extreme cases, be more creative in how they put food on the table.

One of the most important things is to understand how we as individuals can drive change - we mustn’t think that our own individual actions won’t make a difference, because they absolutely do: if you can change just one other person’s mindset through your actions, you can set off a chain reaction. The changes don’t have to be huge - it could be taking your own bags to the supermarket, or creating compost from your organic waste. If something seems difficult, think about alternatives - does the answer lie in your community, for example? 

Another hugely impactful way that we can make a difference is by questioning the companies that make the products we buy. Too many companies get away with questionable activity and approaches because we are too ready to believe their marketing. It’s so important to push back because companies listen to their consumers - and if those consumers are demanding change, then it is more likely to happen.

Absolutely. This is what’s known as biomimicry - the study of how we can learn from nature. In natural systems, waste does not exist. Waste is, in fact, an entirely human concept. In natural systems, products are produced in abundance - indeed, often to excess - but this excess becomes food for insects and helps to build up the soil. There is a process - and each stage of that process has its purpose, whether that is to build or feed something else. By contrast, humans take and put nothing back. Our processes are linear, not cyclical and we need to ask ourselves how we can learn from nature’s systems: systems that have evolved and been perfected over four billion years. 

There are some brilliant examples of how humans have been inspired by nature to solve engineering challenges. The Eastgate shopping centre in the Zimbabwean capital Harare is one such example: instead of using conventional air-conditioning to keep it cool, the designers were inspired by self-cooling termite mounds to regulate the building’s temperature with dramatically less energy consumption. And that was back in the 80s! In Japan, the famous bullet train would create a sonic boom when entering and leaving a tunnel, causing huge disruption to local residents. The engineer charged with solving this problem happened to be an avid birdwatcher and had observed kingfishers catching fish with their beaks without causing any ripples on the water’s surface. He applied similar principles to modify the design of the train’s nose, and the sonic boom was no more! 

Eastgate’s natural ventilation system, inspired by a termite mound



The bullet train and a kingfisher


The possibilities are endless! Could we learn from the arum lily which moves water in a spiral, like a vortex, instead of using pumps? We currently make cement by heating the raw materials under huge pressure - but coral reefs, an equally hard material, are constructed in cold seawater using abundant material. 

It’s hard, especially for those of us who live in cities, to reconnect with nature, but there are some exciting projects to bring nature back to these areas by redesigning urban spaces. It would be better for wildlife, for the planet and for our collective mental health - it’s a no-brainer.

We can invite nature into our everyday lives too - it’s ok to start small. There’s an amazing initiative called Soil for Life in Cape Town which helps people to grow food even in very small areas with just the basics. After all, if you have a tomato, you have tomato seeds! Too many people feel disempowered, but we can’t wait for governments to tell us what to do. We have to take the initiative. If we just start, it’s amazing how much our confidence can grow.

I would love for more people to have that ‘aha!’ moment - that moment when they realise that they have more power than they thought. It’s so important because we can’t wait for governments to change - we, as individuals, have to lead the way. Change comes from the roots up and, if governments and organisations see that it’s important to people, they will follow. And it is happening. In the last two years, I’ve seen some really exciting shifts over the last couple of years from big corporates who were previously very resistant to change. Those shifts are making me feel truly hopeful for the first time. I think we have to shift the discourse from the environmental benefits to the economic benefits, and include the true cost of our actions.

Ultimately, we need to reconnect with nature. Because when we have a relationship with nature, we can learn from it, so that we can look after ourselves and care for the planet at the same time. 

Their dreams are possible because they now know how to think through what needs to happen and quieten the voices of judgement and cynicism that normally stops them.

It’s wonderful to see how many people leave the programme with a greater awareness of their environment and their communities, and with a desire to contribute in a positive way. For me, the single greatest impact we have on our participants is restoring their hope. So many of our participants from under-resourced communities say that, before the programme, they had lost hope in their futures. On completing Resilient Futures, they feel optimistic that they can build a bright, purposeful future for themselves. The key is that they have hope, but with the skills to make their dreams a reality – there are no unattainable dreams here.

I think the real magic of the programme is that it ignites the greatness that already exists in each person, and ensures that it burns so brightly that they can follow it for the rest of their lives.

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