If we want to leave a habitable planet for future generations, we need to change our lifestyles drastically, for instance by buying less, reusing raw materials and products more often, and producing food and energy locally. Together with various experts, the researcher Saskia Keesstra has outlined what a circular household might look like in 2050.
Not everyone will have noticed, but 28 July was Earth Overshoot Day in 2022 – the day on which we had used as much in raw materials globally as the planet could regenerate in the whole year. In the Netherlands, we passed that point even earlier, on 12 April. “At the moment, we’re living way beyond the Earth’s capacity to handle it,” says Wageningen researcher Saskia Keesstra. “If we keep on like this, we’re all heading for disaster. To prevent that, we’ve genuinely got to start doing things differently.”
The solution: more circularity – in other words, more sustainable use of raw materials and products. In the ‘Circular Households’ project, Keesstra worked with experts from various fields to see what forms circularity could take at the household level. “It’s about all kinds of aspects that play a role in our daily lives, both at home and elsewhere. Things like food, clothing, energy, mobility and household devices. How can we tackle them in ways that mean we need less fossil resources – or preferably none – and produce less waste, ultimately making us less of a burden on the planet?”
To answer that question, Keesstra and her colleagues interviewed eight scientists from Wageningen University & Research, each with their own specialist field.
Vision of circular households
Keesstra: “They ranged from an economist and a sociologist to experts in waste, textiles and circular use of materials. We asked each of those scientists to sketch out their vision of the future for what a circular household might look like by 2050, what the obstacles are to achieving that and what the opportunities are. These interviews were then written up as a paper. To make the whole thing more visually attractive, we also made two clips featuring some of the experts and some neat animations.”
Keesstra linked the visions from the interviews to theory from the literature, including the doughnut theory, a socio-economic framework devised by the British economist Kate Raworth. “The outermost layer of this doughnut is the ‘planetary boundaries’, the limits within which we must manage our resources sustainably. The inner layer imposes limits on socio-economic fairness. In other words, how can we make sure that people’s quality of life is acceptable and social structures are not disrupted? Solutions must be achievable and affordable, of course, and must not result in more inequality.”
An important aspect in making households circular is our diet. Keesstra: “Our diet in the Netherlands currently consists largely of meat and dairy produce. To become less of a burden on the planet, we need to switch to a more vegetable-based diet. That will lead to hugely reduced greenhouse gas emissions and less pressure on the soil, as well as being healthier. A more sustainable eating pattern also involves food that is produced more locally. Households can do this by growing their own fruit and veg in an allotment or by buying produce from the local area more often. That means a return to how it used to be done, in fact, to a large extent.”
There are other areas too where the vision of the future looks suspiciously like the past, for instance if we consider textiles. As with food, we need to use more plant-based raw materials such as linen and cotton in clothing production – materials that were used a lot in around 1900. Keesstra: “A lot of clothing nowadays uses synthetic materials, such as elastic, Gore-Tex or nylon. Those are derived from petroleum and so they affect the environment negatively. We’ve got to put an end to that. Besides the ‘old-fashioned’ plant-based fibres, more and more new and sustainable types of textiles are appearing on the market, such as miscanthus.”
What circularity will involve for a household depends on several aspects, says Keesstra.
“Obviously, you’ve got households of all kinds and sizes – from singles to big families, from rich to poor, from city to countryside. Not every solution will work or be feasible for every household. And not everyone is going to be keen on keeping an allotment together with their neighbours or sharing things with other people. But that won’t be a requirement. There’s always something you can do. It starts with little things like storing rainwater, separating out your waste properly, or even just a sticker on your letterbox saying you don’t want house-to-house advertising to make sure less waste comes into your home.”
Four types of households
Keesstra has set out a framework of four types of households to show how you can make a household more circular. She calls them the Househood, the HouseNet, the Sharing Household and the Designing Household. “The difference is in the scale at which circularity is embedded and in whether you do things individually or collectively. In a Sharing Household, for instance, it’s about sharing cars or keeping a communal allotment. A HouseNet is about installing solar panels or a grey water system in the area, whereas a Designing Household largely uses products that industries have produced in a way that makes them easy to repair or recycle. Not that you have to belong to any one type, though – you can combine things too.”
The circular household still has a few hurdles to overcome, though. One of those problems is that products are not designed with circularity in mind. Keesstra: “Look at our clothing. Only three per cent of textiles is recycled currently, mostly because used items can no longer be separated properly. There are all kinds of fibres in a shirt or a pair of trousers. You have the same issue with packaging. Even if you buy a bag of crisps, there’ll be several kinds of plastics and even metal in it. There’s not much the recycling companies can do with that. Separating out all those materials is much too complex and expensive.”
Products are also used for a much shorter time these days than they used to be. Keesstra: “My parents bought their first washing machine in 1968 and they used it for over twenty years. That’s almost unthinkable nowadays. Repairing appliances isn’t always possible either – I recently bought a second-hand oven that had a part that needed replacing. But you couldn’t get it anywhere, so I had to buy a new one after all. Which is exactly what the industry wants: the sooner people discard things, the more new products they’ll need to buy. In terms of making things circular by design, there’s still a long way to go.”
Legislation and regulations
The ball is certainly not only in industry’s court, though, Keesstra stresses. You need good policies from above too, of course. “It’d be a help if politicians put the pressure on by toughening up legislation and regulations. Maybe you should simply ban various disposable products or impose extra taxes on things that aren’t designed circularly or that are produced from fossil resources. You then make those items a lot more expensive and therefore less attractive for both producers and consumers. The tricky bit is that politicians don’t want to get their fingers burned with really unpopular measures like those because they won’t risk losing votes.”
At the same time, Keesstra continues, we have to take a critical look at our behaviour as consumers. “Do you really need those new trousers or that particular gadget? And if so, do you pick a more expensive and more circular version or do you go for the cheap throw-away variant yet again?” Keesstra thinks that the growing popularity of second-hand items is a positive development. “More and more people are buying stuff through online market places like Marktplaats and Vinted. You can see that the image of second-hand goods is a lot more positive. Everything always had to be new in the past, but now it’s cool to be walking around in an old coat. Image plays an important role in acceptance; you can also see that in foods. Being a vegetarian no longer means you’re a tree-hugger.”
A circular society will also bring macroeconomic changes, so we’ll need a different way of calculating our prosperity. According to Keesstra, measuring the economy in purely financial terms is no longer tenable. “From the financial point of view, circularity is of course less profitable than if we keep on buying new things. And they call that bad for the economy. But circularity does have environmental benefits and those are what matter. The awkward bit is that the environmental value is harder to quantify. In a follow-up project to this KB programme, we’re going to look at what that new way of calculating our well-being and prosperity could look like.”
The final question: does Keesstra expect households to be fully circular by 2050? “No, but that won’t be a requirement. There’ll always be some residual waste flows that can’t be used for recycling, just like you’ll always need to keep adding other resources. But as long as the quantities are small, the Earth can handle that just fine. It’s about doing as much as we can within the limits of what’s possible. We won’t be able to turn the tide unless we adopt that attitude. It’s asking a lot from all of us and everyone’s going to feel the pinch. But the cliff-edge we’re running towards now, with shortages of food and resources, collapsing biodiversity and parts of the planet becoming unliveable due to climate change, is even more painful.”