We can only define a circular economy if we look to the end state that we want to achieve. In response to the shortcomings of other current descriptions, here Metabolic’s Founder and CEO Eva Gladek presents “Seven pillars of a circular economy.”

Before I outline the seven pillars themselves, let me tell you how we got there… The circular economy is a term that has gained a great deal of popularity among both businesses and governments over the last few years. As with other popular terms, with its growth in usage, the number of ways in which the term is defined have proliferated. There is no single group with the undisputed authority to define what the circular economy means exactly. While some consensus is developing among the different players working in the field, there can still be a lack of clarity about what “circular” actually means in practice.

Many groups define the circular economy in terms of the types of activities and concepts associated with it: The use of new business models, like leasing, collaboration across supply chains, using waste as a resource, etc. However, these types of characterisations ultimately don’t tell us what the circular economy actually is, because they don’t describe its end state: What will the world actually look like when it is “circular”?

Without answering this fundamental question, we lack a common understanding of what we’re actually trying to achieve, which makes it impossible to measure progress in any meaningful way. If we’re designing a product, for example, and have only limited resources, which we can either invest in more expensive, certified, renewable materials or in the up-front costs needed to set up a product leasing scheme, which will produce the more “circular” result? If we take the activity-based definitions of a circular economy, which suggest that making use of any of these practices makes something circular, then we don’t get much insight on what choice to make. And in fact we know that simply choosing for renewable materials does not always result in less environmental impact or greater value delivery—nor does adopting a leasing scheme.

Defining the circular economy

Over the last five years of advisory and development work in the field of the circular economy, we at Metabolic would frequently run into the issue of needing to handle trade-offs in circular design and decision-making, or needing to quantify progress towards a “circular” goal. For this reason, it became essential for us to define what the performance characteristics of a fully circular economy would be.

A great deal of focus in the circular economy field is on the management of materials and ensuring that resource cycles are closed, in a similar way that occurs in natural systems (in the context of an ecosystem, water and nutrients are continuously cycled among different uses). So we began by taking this principle to its ultimate conclusion: In a circular economy, all materials should be used in such a way that they can be cycled indefinitely (just as they theoretically can in nature).

This statement, however, implies some additional complexities: We don’t just want these materials to be theoretically possible to recover—it has to happen on a time-scale that’s relevant to people (so, if we create wastes that need thousands of years for recovery, potentially in the case of nuclear wastes, that doesn’t exactly address our original goals or criteria). Aside from this time-scale issue, there’s an important recurring principle within discussions of the circular economy, and that is around the preservation of value and complexity: We want to ensure that materials can be cycled at the highest value possible, preferably as whole products, then as components, and finally recycled back down to basic raw materials (which is extremely costly in terms of energy). Even this cascade is oversimplified here, and can look quite different depending on the context. For example, if you have a very inefficient energy-using-product like an old refrigerator, it may actually be systemically better in terms of energy impact to just scrap it and replace it with a newer model than extend the life of the whole product. But the general principle of preserving complexity is clear.

Thinking through how materials should ideally be handled in a circular economy leads to all kinds of further conclusions regarding material toxicity, the scarcity of certain materials, the persistence of certain materials in the environment, and many other parameters. On this basis, we have developed a set of circularity factors that provide guidelines for the optimal use of materials for different functions. These are metrics that we use to define a material based on its properties such as recyclability, scarcity, toxicity, etc. Using these factors, we have developed shorthand recommendations for how certain materials should be used to uphold circular economy objectives.

Beyond materials

But of course, in doing this exercise, we also immediately realised that once you are developing goals for how materials should ideally be managed, you also run into many adjacent issues. Materials are just one type of resource in our economy, where all flows are ultimately connected and influence one another. In a world with infinite and free energy, it’s very easy to design and develop systems that will fully recover all materials through extremely costly and energy-intensive recycling processes (which is how we currently recover metals from electronic waste, for example). However, because energy is also a constraint in our current system (even renewable energy is generated by devices that are made of scarce materials) and often comes with high levels of environmental impact (for instance, Greenhouse Gas emissions), we also need to treat it as a scarce resource that should ideally be conserved. Ultimately, in a circular economy, all energy should be supplied from renewable or otherwise sustainable forms (like geothermal, which is not technically renewable, but we consider it a sustainable resource). To achieve this, the efficiency of our energy use also needs to increase significantly. Even though we know the total amount of energy available on the planet is not a constraint (the sun produces more than enough for everything we need), collecting that energy in usable form does require the use of scarce materials, which are a constraint themselves.

As you continue to explore the implications of striving for a fully closed, circular material cycle as a cornerstone of the economy, you ultimately find many other connections throughout the economic system that need to be arranged in a way that uphold broader human ideals. In the end, this exercise resulted in a set of seven characteristics, which are properties that describe the end state of the circular economy once it has been genuinely achieved. These are idealised features that may never be possible to achieve, but they provide a specific set of targets we can aim for. Furthermore, each one can be characterised in greater, quantitative detail, forming the basis for Circularity Indicators, or KPIs, in many different contexts…

Prioritisation and weighting

An important note on these seven characteristics is that in making decisions not all of these outcomes should be equally prioritised. When we consider the state of the global system, there are some areas that are under extreme threat and close to key systemic “tipping points.” Though climate change is one of these areas, there are some that are even more severely impacted, like biodiversity loss. According to the WWF, we have lost 58 per cent of global biodiversity in the last 40 years, and are at risk of reaching irreversible tipping points in this area (as reported in WWF’s latest Living Planet Report). For this reason, we suggest prioritizing certain types of impacts (and therefore indicators) over others, which is something we also recommend in indicator selection processes.

Some of the impacts that need to be prioritized over others include:

  • Long-term, irreversible impacts
  • Impacts which undermine the ability of the earth to provide a safe operating space for humans
  • Impacts for which the outcomes for people or environment have a high degree of uncertainty

Taking all of these emerging insights together, we have formulated our own working definition of the circular economy:

The circular economy is a new economic model for addressing human needs and fairly distributing resources without undermining the functioning of the biosphere or crossing any planetary boundaries.

Using the seven pillars

You’ll find the pillars below. Once you have these clear performance outcomes in mind, then the process of natural selection, so to speak, will support the evolution of economic rules and incentive structures that actually fulfill these end results. Technologies and business models that ultimately support not just one, but all seven of these goals, will be the ones that rise to the top as the most successful. So, we don’t arbitrarily support “product-as-a-service” models because they have been associated with the circular economy, but we actually look at where, and under which conditions, these models actually result in better circular performance across the board.

For us at Metabolic, these seven characteristics of the circular economy are an essential tool. With it, we are able to make sure that we’re approaching problems in a systemic manner. Whenever we recommend a course of action as part of a circular strategy, we make sure to evaluate whether or not our proposed solution for one area of impact will not be causing a problem or externality in one of the other target areas of performance. This problem, called “burden shifting,” occurs commonly when you’re focused exclusively on one problem (for example: Making light bulbs more energy efficient), without noticing that your solution could have negative, unintended consequences (for example: Your newly efficient light bulbs require the use of toxic and hazardous materials).

Perhaps even more importantly, as we have refined these seven pillars over the years, we have been able to translate them into quantitative tools—metrics and indicators—that we can use for evaluating the circularity of products, projects, businesses, and investment portfolios. For instance, we are currently developing a set of indicators for the Municipality of Amsterdam in order to assess the circularity of new building projects. Using this tool, City officials will be able to determine which of the proposed projects during a tender process should be selected for development, thus keeping Amsterdam’s urban development on a circular path.

Refining and collaborating

We’ve developed this set of characteristics that define the circular economy through a trial and error process over the course of around two hundred projects. For us, they offer clear signposts for how to make genuine strides towards a circular economy. We invite everyone working in the circular economy field to make use of this framework and the tools we have developed around it. We see it as a complementary resource to the lists of business models and circular economy approaches that are already more broadly in use.

But as practitioners, we continuously refine our ideas as we run into new situations and are faced with new trade-offs. We will continue to build on the seven pillars and we welcome other circular economy experts and advisers to join us in this process. If you have thoughts or comments that immediately spring to mind—or other ideas for how to make use of this framework—please reach out to us. We’d love to start a conversation.


The seven pillars of the circular economy

1. Materials are incorporated into the economy in such a way that they can be cycled at continuous high value. A priority is placed on preserving material complexity (the “power of the inner circle”), by cascading materials in their most complex form for as long as possible (e.g., as products rather than components, and as components rather than materials). Material cycles should be designed to be of lengths that are relevant on a human time scale and appropriate to the natural cycles to which they’re connected. The length of materials cycles is matched to material scarcity: Scarce materials are preferentially cycled at shorter intervals so they can be recovered sooner for reuse. Material cycles are designed to be as geographically short as possible, which varies depending on the ubiquity of the material. Materials should not be mixed in ways that they can no longer be separated and purely recovered, unless they can continue to cycle infinitely at high value in their mixed form (and even then, this is preferentially not done because it limits choice). Materials should be used only when necessary: There is an inherent preference for dematerialisation of products and services.

2. All energy is based on renewable sources. The materials required for energy generation and storage technologies are designed for recovery into the system. Energy is intelligently preserved (waste is avoided), and cascaded when lower values of energy are available for use (e.g., heat cascading). Density of energy consumption should ideally be matched to density of local energy availability to avoid structural energetic losses in transport. Conversion between energy types should be avoided. Avoid transport of energy. The system should be designed for maximum energy efficiency without compromising performance and service output of the system.

3. Biodiversity is structurally supported and enhanced through all human activities. As one of the core principles of acting within a circular economy is to preserve complexity, the value of preserving biodiversity is one of the highest values within the circular economy. Habitats, especially rare habitats, should not be encroached upon or structurally damaged through human activities. Preservation of ecological diversity is one of the core sources of resilience for the biosphere. Material and energetic losses are tolerated for the sake of preservation of biodiversity; it is a much higher priority.

4. Human society and culture are preserved. As another form of complexity and diversity (and therefore resilience), human cultures and social cohesion are important to maintain. Processes and organizations should make use of appropriate governance and management models and reflect the needs of affected stakeholders. Activities that structurally undermine the well-being or existence of unique human cultures should be avoided at high cost.

5. The health and wellbeing of humans and other species are  structurally supported. Toxic and hazardous substances should ultimately be eliminated, and in the transition phases towards this economy, minimized and kept in highly controlled cycles. Economic activities should never threaten human health or well-being in a circular economy. For example, successfully recycling e-waste by having people burn it over open fires is not considered a “circular” activity despite the fact that it results in material recovery.

6. Human activities generate value in measures beyond just financial. Materials and energy are not currently available in infinite measure, so their use should be intentional and meaningful contribution to the creation of societal value. Forms of value beyond financial include: Aesthetic, emotional, ecological, etc. These cannot be brought down to a common measure without making gross approximations or imposing subjective value judgements; they should, therefore, be recognized as value categories in their own right. The choice to use resources should maximize value generation across as many categories as possible rather than simply maximizing financial returns.

7. The economic system is inherently adaptable and resilient. The economic system should have the governance systems, incentives, and mechanisms in place that allow it to respond to systemic shocks and crises. This refers to the distribution of power, the structure of information networks, and ensuring that back-ups exist in the case of failure of parts of the system. The same principles of resilience apply on small as well as large scales.

This article originally appeared on Metabolic’s website.

Visit to United Breweries Limited, Goa

About the company: United Breweries Holdings Limited (UBHL) or UB Group is an Indian conglomerate company headquartered in UB City, Bangalore in the state of Karnataka, India.   The company markets beer under the Kingfisher brand and owns various other brands of alcoholic beverages. United Breweries is India’s largest producer of beer.

The purpose of the visit was to understand various waste streams coming out of brewery industry.

We have identified 4 main waste streams from our visit:

  1. Spent Grains
  2. Yeast
  3. Waste Water
  4. Glass Bottles
  5. Broken Glasses


Spent Grains are a rich source of protein and is sent to farms and piggeries for food for animals. Around 25-30 tonnes of spent grain is produced per day. Another organic waste that is generated is yeast which is cultured by UB in their unit and is used 6 times before it is sent to landfills.  Approximately 1 tonne per month of yeast waste is generated.


The wastewater from the units is sent to the effluent treatment plant. UB uses reed bed technology and karnal technology.

Reed beds are aquatic plant-based systems which allow bacteria, fungi and algae to digest the sewage and clean the water [1].

The Karnal Technology involves growing tree on ridges 1m wide and 50cm high wand disposing of the untreated sewage in furrows.  The amount of the sewage/ effluents to be disposed off depends on the age, type of plants, climatic conditions, soil texture and quality of effluents.  The total discharge of effluent is so regulated that it is consumed within 12-18 hours and there is no standing water left in the trenches.  Through this technique, it is possible to dispose off 0.3 to 1.0 ML of effluent per day per hectare. This technique utilizes the entire biomass as a living filter for supplying nutrients to soil and plant; irrigation renovates the effluent for atmospheric re-charge and ground storage.  Further, as forest plants are to be used for fuelwood, timber or pulp, there is no chance of pathogens, heavy metals, and organic compounds to enter into the human food chain system, a point that is a limiting factor when vegetables or other crops are grown with sewage [2].

During the bottling process of beer, some glass bottles are broken and the waste is sent to recyclers. UB introduces 30% of new bottles every year and recycles their glass bottles after usage. They purchase the bottles at a price of Rs3/bottle from the retailers thus enabling the consumers to participate in the recycling process.

About the Author: Shubham Singh is presently working as the BIRAC Social Innovator at Venture Center, Pune.





Visit to Srivardhan Biotech

About the company: Shrivardhan Biotech – is a leading Exporter, Supplier, Trading Company of gerbera flower, rose flowers, spices and coloured capsicum from Kolhapur, Maharashtra.


The purpose of the visit was to understand how agricultural waste residue is managed. The company’s main product is in cultivating flowers which are mainly shipped to European countries. On visiting the flowering packaging unit, we found out that main waste is generated in trimming flower stems to a standard size. The flower stems are then packaged and shipped in a temperature-controlled truck to the airport. The losses occurred during the transportation is due to packaging which is a huge problem in this industry. Furthermore, the packaging material should be moisture resistant.


The cut parts of the flower stem along with any agricultural waste is composted and used as a fertilizer. Cow dung is mixed in the compost which enhances the quality of the fertilizer.


The company also prepares natural pesticides from chilly, garlic and cow urine which works very well as an insect repellant.


About the Author: Shubham Singh is presently working as the BIRAC Social Innovator at Venture Center, Pune.

Gokul Dairy, Shirgaon, Kolhapur

About Gokul Dairy –

As a part of immersion visit to Sangali, Kolhapur and Goa, we got the opportunity to visit Gokul Dairy situated at Shirgaon, Kolhapur. The Dairy was established on 16th March 1963. Gokul stated with the capacity of 700 litre per day but at present Gokul has modern 7 lakh liters per day capacity dairy plant. Their products include Milk, Shrikhand, Ghee, Table Butter, Skimmed Milk Powder & Desi Butter.

After reaching Gokul Dairy, we met Mr. R C Shah who is currently General Manager of plant. He told us the brief history of Gokul, current production capacity, financials and future scalability plans of dairy.

Key points of discussions:

  • Dairy procure 50 % buffalo milk and 50 % cow milk from 450 societies. After processing the milk 80 % liquid milk is sold and rest 20 % milk is used to produce Shrikhand, Ghee, Table Butter, Skimmed Milk Powder & Desi Butter.
  • During processing, milk is heated at 78 °C for 15 seconds and then chilled at 4 °C.
  • Current capacity of plant is – they can produce 42 tonnes butter per day, 40 tonnes milk powder per day and 6 tonnes ghee per day.
  • Milk can be stored for 4-7 days in plant.
  • 80 % water needs to remove to produce milk powder.
  • During summer milk production is low so they use milk powder to fulfill the demand of milk. 10 litres of milk can be made from 1 Kg of milk powder.
  • For packaging the milk, they use plastic pouch. Unused or discarded milk pouch is sent for recycling.
  • All the dairy equipment is cleaned by chemicals and detergent to avoid the contamination in milk.
  • Main problem is they need approximately 1.3 litre of water to process 1 litre of milk.
  • There is loss of 2-3 % of fat and cream when they clean the dairy equipment.
  • Farmers are paid on the basis of quantity of fat in milk which they give it to Gokul Societies.
  • Generated scrap material in plant is sold kabadiwalas in Kolhapur.

Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP)

There is lot of water wastage in cleaning the dairy machinery and that waste water can’t be directly mixed in drains because BOD and COD is very high. So Gokul Dairy has its own Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) and its capacity is 12 lakhs lit per day.

Below diagram shows the functioning of ETP : –

Removed fat is composed and then sold to farmers. On another hand water goes through anaerobic digestion where methane gas is collected and used for energy production and rest water goes for aerobic waste water treatment tank and then finally it is given to farmers for irrigation purpose.

Author: Pramod Bhurji, BIRAC Social Innovation Immersion Programme Fellow at Venture Center, Pune.

Transforming an Idea into a Viable Product: User Research

 About the speaker: Ved Muthal is the cofounder and CTO of  Peppercorn Labs.


The article content is taken from the Social Innovation Lecture Series held at Venture Center, Pune on 18th August 2017.

User research is an integral part of the journey of a product from prototype to market. Most startups fail to deliver after they launch their product. It is required to make changes to the product as per the user experience and minimize the risks.


User research is important to see your product through the lens of your users, their behavior, and emotions behind using your product. Therefore, before the rollout of a product, it is advisable to involve users directly in your market research.  This can be done with a focus group or with direct interviews with users. It not only gives you an insightful feedback on the product and at the same time doesn’t cost you anything.

Here is a scene from the American TV Series Silicon Valley on a focus group.

Well, not all focus groups end up like the one in the video. It indeed gives you a good feedback on how your customer will perceive your product. Make a note on some key questions, like if they are able to access the key features of the product? Is your product easy to use? Are they able to understand your product? What are the pros and cons of the design? This would help you to understand the usability of your product from a customer point of view. You might even discover new insights which can be incorporated in the product or even validate your market research.

How to recruit users for conducting User research?

It is important to carefully select your users as it will give you crisp results and will save a lot of time. It is recommended to prepare a filter sheet and identifying the right set of people which closely resembles your market segment.

How to conduct a focus group/interview?

  1. Keep the session informal. This will help you to form a bond with the user. Greet them and introduce your product.
  2. Record your session so that you can keep it for your reference
  3. Watch. Observe. Listen. Don’t be defensive about your product The idea is to get honest insights about your product.
  4. Keep track of time.
  5. Take notes. One person in your team should be a moderator while having someone else for taking notes.
  6. Don’t pitch your product. Ask questions and make a note.
  7. Thank them for their time and the feedback. Keep some refreshments if possible.


About the Author: Shubham Singh is presently working as the BIRAC Social Innovator at Venture Center, Pune.