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Could there be a little more of using a little less?

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If a cat has nine lives, why shouldn't a T-shirt have two? From the clothes hanging in your closet to the plasterboard on your ceiling: committing to smart use and re-use is Nina Maat’s (25) mission. In October, she will even be opening an exhibition about the "circular economy". This is a great initiative that we will keep you informed about over the next few months. But first:

What exactly is the circular economy?

Nina Maat will open the MUCE, or the Museum of Circular Economy, in October. But what actually is the "circular economy"? And how can you get involved?   

What is the circular economy?

Something to do with recycling. That’s what most people think when they hear about the circular economy. “Recycling is indeed a part of it, but it is only the very last option,” says Nina Maat, founder of MUCE and the driving force behind Antwerp Circular.

“In a circular economy, you always start with prevention: do you really need this product, does that material add anything of value, is there a higher quality alternative that lasts longer, and so on?” she says. Some practical examples: Could you borrow that novel from the library instead of buying it? Can you stream instead of having a CD delivered to your door? Isn't it better to buy a higher quality T-shirt instead of one that you need to throw away after five washes?

“Circular also means keeping products in circulation for as long as possible by sharing, renting, re-using, repairing or, in the end, recycling,” states Nina. "However you do it, there is no longer any waste. It’s the art of going round and round with the same materials for as long as possible."

In a circular economy, you keep the supply chain as short as possible. “By producing locally and keeping materials in the cycle for as long as possible, you also become less economically dependent on raw materials,” she adds. "Everyone can play their part in this . By making their own conscious choices, at home, on the road and at work."

How do you know whether the sweater, drill or seat you buy can easily last you another 20 years?

“First ask yourself if you really need this product,” says Nina. "Your own power drill is useful, for example, if you have to renovate an entire home. However, if you only have to hang up the occasional coat rack or picture, you would do better to call on a neighbour or borrow one on a sharing platform. Sharing is often cheaper than owning."

"When you buy something, pay attention to its quality. Choose high-quality materials as much as possible," says Nina. "Ask yourself these questions: What material is it made from? Is it glued together (e.g. iPhone) or can you easily unscrew it and replace components (e.g. Fairphone)? Does the manufacturer provide parts or information about how to fix it? Do you get an extra guarantee on top of the statutory guarantee? What do consumer organisations have to say, and can you learn from reviews by other consumers about the product’s longevity and quality?”

For Nina, product design has a major role to play in the circular economy: smart design so that products last as long as possible and can be broken down with the minimum of effort at the end of their cycle. "Nature is a great source of inspiration for product design. Look at Velcro. The idea for that material was inspired by teasel, a plant with the same "magic sticking power". Biomimicry – learning from the processes and shapes of nature – provides natural inspiration for technological innovation."

Can you keep up with trends in a circular economy? Sometimes people just want something new.

"At first sight, trends and the circular economy do seem to contradict each other. That said, quality materials and timeless pieces that last a long time are always in," says Nina Maat. "Still, fashion-conscious clothing, furniture, and so on can certainly form part of a circular economy. Creativity is part of being human. You can use those trousers you don't want to be seen in for DIY around the house. You can upcycle things, too. And there’s always someone who bucks the trend and thinks old-fashioned things are really cool," says Nina with a laugh.

And those things you truly don't need any more: what should you do with them?

"Make someone you know happy. Or sell them second-hand or donate them to the Circle Shop," states Nina. "Gifting to a charity is also possible, but it is a good idea to know exactly what the organisation is doing with the goods. For example, clothes can be tricky, no matter how good your intentions. Some items are sorted and given a new life, but unfortunately some are still being dumped in developing countries where they literally end up on textile mountains."

A circular economy and a growth economy: are these two things compatible?

“As the circular economy receives more and more attention, the extraction and price of raw materials are continuing to rise,” says Nina. "Due to the rapid recovery from the coronavirus crisis and the war in Ukraine, this has itself become problematic, resulting in high inflation for consumers. In a circular economy, we are less affected by a shortage of raw materials since there is maximum reuse and as much local production as possible. Growth is possible, among other things, thanks to value creation from new circular activities. The development of circular products also requires a specialist workforce. From brewing beer from left-over bread to car sharing platforms, there are thousands of examples that show you can swing the needle in the right direction and make money at the same time in a circular economy." 

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Circular economy: 7 things do to do in practice. Nina Maat offers 7 practical and achievable examples and tips

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