The DNA of Work

Doing your bit for the circular economy

October 18, 2022 Season 1 Episode 36
Doing your bit for the circular economy
The DNA of Work
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The DNA of Work
Doing your bit for the circular economy
Oct 18, 2022 Season 1 Episode 36

What is the circular economy? Is it just recycling? What do we have to do differently?  What does it mean for the workplace? Will it cost more? Why do we have to do things differently? How can we get started? What are some simple examples I can use to start meaningful conversations in my organization? 

So many questions, for which we have some straightforward answers and inspiring examples of what can be achieved. There's no time to lose - we have to start thinking differently and acting differently, to save our planet.

Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:

  • What is the circular economy? (01:46)
  • This is a gift for implementing agile / hybrid working (07:46)
  • 'As a service' examples -copiers, coffee, furniture, lighting (15:49)
  • What this could mean for workplace design (23:20)


AWA Host: Karen Plum


 AWA Guest details


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 

AWA Institute contact: Brad Taylor 

Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

Show Notes Transcript

What is the circular economy? Is it just recycling? What do we have to do differently?  What does it mean for the workplace? Will it cost more? Why do we have to do things differently? How can we get started? What are some simple examples I can use to start meaningful conversations in my organization? 

So many questions, for which we have some straightforward answers and inspiring examples of what can be achieved. There's no time to lose - we have to start thinking differently and acting differently, to save our planet.

Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:

  • What is the circular economy? (01:46)
  • This is a gift for implementing agile / hybrid working (07:46)
  • 'As a service' examples -copiers, coffee, furniture, lighting (15:49)
  • What this could mean for workplace design (23:20)


AWA Host: Karen Plum


 AWA Guest details


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 

AWA Institute contact: Brad Taylor 

Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:01 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. In this episode, we're looking at the circular economy. I wanted to know more about what it is and what it means for the workplace. One of my guests says it's the best way to implement hybrid working, so we really need to find out more. Let's get started. 

00:00:22 INTRO: Welcome to AWA’s Podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that every one is unique. 

We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the T-shirt, and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host, Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work. 

00:00:47 Karen Plum

Joining me for a spin round the circular economy and what it means for the workplace are two of my AWA colleagues, Celeste Tell and Lisa Whited, both passionate advocates for creating a more sustainable world. Welcome Celeste and Lisa. 

00:01:03 Celeste Tell

Thank you, Karen. 

00:01:04 Lisa Whited

Thanks Karen, happy to be here. 

00:01:06 Karen Plum

Great to see you both. And I'm also delighted to welcome Dr David Greenfield. David’s Managing Director of - how do you pronounce it, David? 

00:01:14 David Greenfield


00:01:16 Karen Plum

SOENECS, which is SOcial, ENvironmental and EConomic Solutions. They are independent researchers and innovators who support organisations wanting to embrace the circular economy. David’s also visiting professor of circular economy at the University of Brighton. Hello David. 

00:01:33 David Greenfield

Hi, thank you for inviting me today. 

00:01:36 Karen Plum

You're all very welcome. David, perhaps we can start with you? I'd love you to set the scene for us by explaining - what do we mean by circular economy? 

00:01:46 David Greenfield

So the circular economy is best understood when we compare it to the linear economy, in which we currently live. We currently take resources out of the ground, in many cases, produce things, consume things and generate waste. This has some problems with it and I'm just going to highlight three. 

Firstly, that the population is growing faster than the scarce resources that we currently use for the linear model. We use a lot of non-recyclable materials and fossil energy that cannot be easily regenerated. 

Second we know all about the environmental issues that we have on this planet, including the quantity of CO2 put into the atmosphere, changes in temperature, availability of clean water, and the existence of nondegradable elements in the biosphere. These are all significant threats to our current model of living.

And the third issue, which is key, is to understand the opportunity of circular economy. In many cases we are actually losing money, we're losing value, we're losing materials, and in particular when we waste things, we lose those materials that have been used to create something, lost the energy used to create that product, and we're also throwing away water. So fundamentally, we're currently working in a linear model that is throwing away money. 

Now the circular economy is trying to take that approach and capture those resources before they get lost. And one of the ways that it can be done is to focus on five different business models. 

One is circular supplies - how we use renewable energy and bio based or fully recyclable inputs to any system that we work with. Resource recovery - recovering the useful resources out of the materials and byproducts of waste - that's one which I think many people will understand very, very simply. 

Another simple example is how do we extend the life of products - by repairing, upgrading, reselling as well as innovative and product design.

Forth business model is sharing platforms - how can we actually share the assets that already out there and access or use ownership to increase the product use. 

And then the fifth business model is product as a service, so moving away from product ownership and offering customers access (paid or non-paid) to products, allowing companies to retain the benefits of circular resource productivity, or by ownership to increase product use. 

So very, very simply, circular economy for me is about moving away from the linear economy to a circular economy where we retain the resources and design a system that is thinking about the life cycle of products, goods and services. 

00:04:38 Karen Plum

Well, I know Celeste and Lisa are both very knowledgeable about the circular economy, but I have to confess that until I started thinking about this podcast, I hadn't heard a great deal about it or known a great deal about it. I do now, 'cause I've been doing some research, but you know, is this a concept that is gaining a lot of traction David, would you say? 

00:05:00 David Greenfield

I think it's definitely gaining traction. Interestingly the COVID has proved to be a very interesting one and I'm part of the Circular Economy Club, which is an international network which I would recommend anybody works with. And prior to 2019 we only had one North American club.

We're now up to 45 clubs across North America. We've got 280 clubs around the world and these are all run by volunteers to try and get circular economy embedded in the local area. But that's, in many cases, a passionate few.

 I think circular economy being mainstream at the moment, I think certain elements are, but many people wouldn't understand that that is what circular economy is. 

00:05:45 Karen Plum

Right. I was very struck when you were talking about different resources, particularly water, given that we've just had a year where there was severe drought in this country and I guess it's helpful in a sense to cement the importance of changing our attitude towards those sorts of resources. 

00:06:07 David Greenfield

Absolutely and I think many people don't realize the amount of raw materials that go into certain products. I'll give you an example. One of the other organisations I run is something called TECH-TAKEBACK, where we're collecting end of life electricals. We refurbish them and get them back out to charities. 

We've been running that collection in Brighton Hove for 18 months and collected over 70,000 items. But if we look at a single laptop as an example, single laptop in terms of its raw materials includes 14 rare earth metals including gold, palladium, platinum, copper, zinc. 

It also normally takes around 10,000 litres of water to create one laptop. So when we start thinking about the life cycle of products and we start thinking about Scope 3 emissions in terms of carbon, we can start trying to build a picture of - what is the footprint of that device? 

And that's why extending the life of it, repairing it, refurbishing it and purchasing from a circular economy perspective is so critical because what you're actually doing is then considering the footprint of resources of that particular item. 

00:07:22 Karen Plum

It's fascinating and such a huge topic. What I'd like to do now is to bring the conversation round to the workplace, because on the podcast we're really interested in work and the workplace and what all of these ideas mean. 

Celeste, can you start us off by talking about the different aspects in which the circular economy relates to the workplace? 

00:07:46 Celeste Tell

Sure, Karen. I think about it sort of in three buckets. I think about it as - there are technical solutions which are people working on what David was talking about, all the resources like how to not keep going back to the well for new virgin resources, but to keep those resources in play. 

I think the second one is design - how do we design differently so that we can keep products and materials and play instead of getting rid of them, even if they're not perfect materials and products, but they're only less bad materials and products. 

And last is behavior in use, which has been sort of my fascination for a while, which is, you know - how do we use things, because every model of sustainability, including circular economy, has what I call a black box of use. 

For me, I got fascinated with circular economy before the pandemic, because I saw it as the way to implement an agile workplace. It just made so much sense to me. If you're creating an agile workplace, why not have the space adapt to user needs in real time rather than having the people have to adapt? And then, how do you do that in a way to keep everything out of landfill? How do you create a kit of parts for an agile or hybrid workplace that you can repurpose and reconfigure over and over again as needs change. That is the opportunity that I see. 

00:09:15 Karen Plum

And I know that you and Lisa were at the IFMA conference last week in Nashville, the International Facility Management Association. Lisa, was circular economy a really big topic when you were there? 

00:09:30 Lisa Whited

I think the good news was, Karen, that it was highlighted as an emerging topic. IFMA has recognized this, that this is so important and it's not lumped in with sustainability. It's being recognized as its own specific topic - circular economy. And that will help get this more in the everyday language of facility managers, those that they are interfacing with and that helps us broaden that conversation to get the exposure it needs. 

00:10:01 Karen Plum

So this is about finding different ways of running and operating our office space, yes? 

00:10:07 Lisa Whited

It is. It is. I think the phrase I've been using over the last couple years is the need for courageous leaders, courageous leadership, and that is a person in any position, any role that is tenacious and strong enough and has enough belief in sharing this new knowledge to bring it to their own organizations for conversations. 

And that's how we're going to be able to get this to spread more that people in their own positions and facility managers you know, when Celeste and I were talking last week in our session, the question was, well, how do we make a difference as a facility manager, that's a very specific role. And the way that I suggested that it be answered is first think about how you believe as an individual that this is important enough for you to bring it into your organization. 

You personally as an individual have to connect with the purpose of why you would want to be pushing circular economy, because you're going to be going, fighting an uphill battle. Everywhere you turn, people will say, well, we've always done it this way. What are you asking us to do? Is this going to take more time? Is this going to cost more money? It's human nature. We don't want to change how we've always done things. 

So first people have to figure out why they would want to do that and then start to carry it into their organizations. 

00:11:28 David Greenfield

I think Lisa’s highlighted that really well. I think one of the real opportunities with circular economy is when there's particular events happening in an organization, be that procurement, be that a new building, be it an office change, be it a new team. I do a lot of work with companies that are looking at change management incorporating circular economy into change management because it's the perfect time to incorporate it, particularly if you've got your procurement cycles aligned. 

It's not facility management, but just as an example with the local Council that I'm working with, Brighton & Hove City Council, we've spent four years working with them, putting in place the circular economy strategy, which I think is very important for businesses as well. But that strategy has got some visioning ambitions in there and I say they’re envisioning ambitions 'cause it's a good target, but whether or not we ever get there is another matter. 

But they've put in that by 2030, 75% of their external spend will be on circular economy goods and services, with 50% of those provided by local businesses. Now that as a vision and as a statement of intent is absolutely massive. So I think you need those courageous leaders to put a line in the sand and go OK, we know that we've got the opportunity to do something here and let's not do business as usual, because business as usual will ultimately mean linear economy. 

00:13:04 Lisa Whited

I love that. That's awesome!

00:13:06 Celeste Tell

I love that too. I just want to say David, you're so far ahead of us in the UK it just lights me up and encourages me for the future!

But what we also heard at IFMA a lot also, there's confusion about the recycling economy and the circular economy. So you talk about circular economy and people default to - oh, well, that's recycling. And I actually have a great diagram that very simply shows linear economy, recycling economy, circular economy - because they are different and in a circular economy, recycling is only the last resort and waste is considered a design flaw. 

00:13:46 David Greenfield


00:13:47 Celeste Tell

So in the US in particular and globally, we're so immersed in our culture as consumers, for which recycling is a part of, and recycling is part and parcel of the consumer economy, that a circular economy forces you to think differently at the big picture level about the entire lifecycle of everything and it puts recycling in its place. And that's a mental shift for people. 

00:14:17 David Greenfield

Yeah, it is. And I think one of the very simple solutions is playing to the fact that it's not as big as shift as they may think, because the chances are they're probably already doing something that is circular. 

So I use a lot in my lectures with students - they're going oh circular economy? Is that a new economy model? Do we have to do something else? I said, how many of you bought vintage clothes in the last five years? They go ooh – most of them put their hands up. There we are - you're already doing reuse. You're extending the life of a product. They go, oh, didn't think of it like that.

And so I think we need to take the concepts of circular economy and try to apply them to behavior change and how people are already doing something because if they’re already doing it, it makes it a lot easier to do it a bit better. If it's completely new to them. I love having really fascinating conversations with some of my American colleagues who say to me, you live in a second hand house! And I go, sorry? 

Because in certain parts of the States as we know, they just build and build and build and having a used home is an anathema. So I think that there are many cases where we can use what's already out there to try and reinforce circular economy. However, Celeste, you are absolutely correct, recycling is the last resort for a circular economy. 

00:15:49 Celeste Tell

Yes, and I actually - your argument about they're already doing it in the workplace is also true. So the examples that I often use are copiers. Nobody has bought a copier in I don't know how long. It's an ‘as a service’ model where you contract with the copier company and they provide, operate, and maintain the copier. They provide you the supplies and when that model becomes obsolete or breaks, they replace it. 

Same thing with coffee service. I live in the land of Starbucks - every office space here has Starbucks coffee service. The workplace facilities people don't buy that machine, they contract with Starbucks for coffee service. It's all inclusive and it's as a service. And so those are really great examples also of how people are already doing it. 

00:16:42 Karen Plum

Those are really great examples and I think furniture is another one, but before we get into that, we're going to have a quick break for this message. 

00:16:51 MESSAGE: Are you changing the way your organization works? Perhaps you're trying to make sense of hybrid working, or looking for ways to strengthen your virtual leadership skills. Maybe you're trying to work out how much space you really need. 

AWA works with organizations to figure out the answers to these challenges. If you'd like to talk to us, go straight to our website We transform the world of work for the better - it's in our DNA. 

00:17:23 Karen Plum

Welcome back. While I was doing my research for this episode, office furniture came up as another big item that's often discarded. I read the figure of 10 million tons of furniture discarded by businesses and consumers in EU countries every year, the majority of which ends up in landfill or it gets incinerated or whatever.

Lisa, you were telling us that there are some ‘furniture as a service’ options for organisations for their offices now. 

00:17:52 Lisa Whited

There are and there's, you know, I think more outlets for that, especially now when you look at all of the empty office space that people are not going back to and the interest in subleasing, there's a huge amount of furniture available. There are many that are popping up to manage all of that furniture.

You know, it strikes me, though, I've been thinking about this a lot, I've been quite interested in the pursuit of minimalism as an individual. And minimalism, it doesn't mean you get rid of everything, but you have just what you need, you know, you're really paring back. And you can't help but get to a little bit of a spiritual place, when you do that - what is it, the more you know, the less you need.

And one of the things that I observe and I've dedicated my professional life - almost 40 years to the world of work and workplace - is this attachment to stuff that especially employees have in the workplace. 

I really get challenged by this, the notion of - but I must have my own desk and maybe it's not as great in the UK, but man, I'll tell you, in the US, when you start to talk to people about sharing, sharing workplace, you know they share everything else, they share meeting rooms and lunch rooms and toilet seats, for God's sake. But don't make me share a desk. And when I was researching my book came across the statistic that one empty desk is the equivalent of driving a diesel car 6,000 kilometers a year. 

That's not specific enough. I'm trying to find - David I'm sort of looking to you here buddy - finding a way to help people understand the impact of their decision. If they would be willing to try not to have a desk, can I get them to think a little differently about their personal footprint and how they can change behavior. 

00:19:48 David Greenfield

Yeah, it's a really challenging one, but as in many cases, people feel entitlement to something and particularly we've grown up in a society where actually people’s ambition is to get their own desk, then get their own office and actually that model is changing significantly and I think what COVID has done particularly in the UK, I know in the US as well, to a certain extent, it has opened the door to new ways of working. 

And on the furniture side, it's really interesting, I work with a couple of companies that are going round all of these empty offices, taking all the old furniture, refurbishing it and then selling it back to people. So you've got that model, which is resource recovery. But we're just about to launch something called the library of things in Brighton & Hove - there's seven already in London and these are for householders and they're very much products as a service. 

So we use a very simple example and I called out a group of householders last weekend and said how many of you actually own a drill – for putting a hole in the wall? They all put their hands up. And I said, how many of you have used it ten times this year? Half of them put their hands down. I said, how many of you have used it twenty times this year? 90% of them put their hands down.

And then I said to them, OK, the amount of resource in your drill is equivalent to 2,000 liters of water, 5 kilograms of metal 2 tons or ore and you've used it five times this year, and you've had it for 10 years, so you've used it for less than one day in the whole of the last five years. 

And you could see them sitting there going, oh. And then we say OK, wouldn't it be better if you could access the same drill but higher quality and that get used 25 times per week or per month, meaning that we didn't need to extract all of those raw materials and you can just see lights flipping all over the place.

Now I think if we take that approach, it's sometimes we can and sometimes it works. But particularly in a business sense, if we now start linking that to carbon reduction and ESG, then what circular economy actually delivers is a way of delivering carbon reduction, because you're then actually reducing the amount of consumption that you end up with - which ultimately is going to be a reduction in carbon. 

So I think that narrative and what I've found with a lot of the businesses that I work with, is that if you can get the procurement managers on board, you’re actually going a very long way to getting things changed because they will start to move the specifications for purchase of new furniture to furniture leasing; to light as a service - there's some fascinating examples in Holland with Philips, where you pay by the lumen rather than by light bulb, and as soon as you can get the procurement managers and people responsible for procurement understanding a new way of purchasing – i.e. leasing in many cases and taking it off the balance sheet, you're in a very, very interesting world then. 

00:23:20 Celeste Tell

Procurement is one piece but the other piece is the architectural and design community. And I say this with love because I came to this as a designer, you know, who learned the traditional way of programming and designing and building and I did projects where everything was custom and when everything is custom, it really is a single use product, right? 

The challenge in workplace is it's such a complex construct and you have real estate which is on five to ten year cycles; you have office furniture which is on seven to 25 year cycles; you have office technology which is on one to three-year cycles; and then you have business which is on one to two year cycles. 

And so bringing all those parts and pieces together, all those systems together, it really becomes in a circular world, more of a system design than an architectural design. And that's where I think getting the community, the design community and the workplace community to begin thinking a little differently about it, to look at it more as a system design and not as an architectural design, that's what I think will really get us to circular workplaces more than anything else, and I think we're only just beginning to have those conversations. 

00:24:40 Karen Plum

So it's the beginning of the next long journey, really I suppose. Any final thoughts about how people in organisations might make a difference or what's the best way to get started? Lisa? 

00:24:53 Lisa Whited

We've gotta shorten the journey, 'cause we don’t have time for a long journey. This planet is burning up. I mean, this is a priority. I am glad that IFMA has put the focus on this, but we as professionals and I know it's the three of us and Karen adding you to the tribe with your research already, have got to do everything we can to push this forward and really challenge the old ways of thinking. And the young people won't have it. 

And they are learning it in school, they're learning it, beginning in first grade, all about this. So I do think Celeste architects and designers in current courses, and I know academia can be slow higher Ed. But I do believe that they are thinking already differently. We've got to get the old, 'm not saying old people, but people who think old, they have to get out of the way because we just don't have any time for a long journey. 

00:25:45 Celeste Tell

Yeah, I think that we have to start looking at it differently and while again I applaud and I'm excited about all the longer term technical solutions that people are working on, I believe that we can do this better, faster by looking at existing things that we already have and using them better and using them in more circular ways, and that we can be a little bit scrappy about it, because I agree with everything Lisa just said – climate’s burning, don't have any time. 

00:26:12 Karen Plum

Time to break things. And a final word from you, David?

00:26:15 David Greenfield

I couldn't agree more with both Celeste and Lisa in terms of their summary. I think probably just the thing to add is that there is an element to take a chance. I'm currently a director of I think seven, possibly eight different companies which are trying to break the mold. Unfortunately we’re on a on podcast so nobody else can see it, but for the three of you - sitting behind me is an insulation panel made out of mycelium

So mycelium is the root structure of mushrooms. This is recovered woodchip, and this is currently going through British regulation testing for thermal productivity and for heat tests and for fire and everything like that. By January this will be available to be used in new homes as an insulation panel. I'm one of the non exec directors of it. We've got house builders lining up for this sort of thing because it's carbon positive and they can tick it off their green list.

Now I've absolutely got no problem with corporates using circular economy solutions to tick box them being greener. I think we have to give them the opportunity to do that and to point them in the direction of the solutions. 

I think the one thing that we are not able to do anymore is write any more strategies. We just need to deliver action plans and action plans are absolutely critical. Now that might be a new planning scenario - I could bore you about planning and some of the stuff that we've done there - it might be new procurement. But fundamentally comes back to the point Lisa was making - we want champions who can do their own circular economy actions within their own little area and that might be a team of three people doing something, it might be the CEO of the organization, but we need to get those champions and we need to give them the right information.

And I think the work that IFMA is doing, I've been lucky enough to work with IFMA with my Circular Economy Institute hat on and we've partnered up to offer IFMA members Circular Economy Institute training through the website, and that's a good example of collaboration between different organisations with expertise. 

And that's what we've got to do. We've got to move out of our silos and start exploring the chain that we live within and seeing who else is on the chain that we can work with to become more circular. 

00:28:46 Karen Plum

That sounds like a fantastic call to action and the details of that course we can share in our show notes, so our listeners can follow up on that if they have an interest there. 

But I guess, as you've all said, the time is now and people just have to get on with it and not worry whether they're doing absolutely the perfect thing, but do something because time's running out.

Well it's been an absolute pleasure listening to the three of you knowledgeable people talking about this subject. Thank you very much for sharing all your insights and expertise today. 

00:29:17 Celeste Tell

Thank you, Karen. 

00:29:18 Lisa Whited

Thanks, Karen. 

00:29:18 David Greenfield

Thank you very much. 

00:29:20 Karen Plum

So the circular economy requires courageous leadership and a desire to just stop strategizing and get on with it. We don't have time to get things perfect, the planet's burning. The time to act really is now. 

 00:29:39 CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website,

Thank you so much for listening. See you next time. Goodbye.