A circular economy provides space for a social economy that, beyond economic benefits, also seeks to improve people’s lives.
Back in 2015, the refugee crisis uncovered Europe’s ugliest face: thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean, dying in the attempt to reach safe borders, just as the world’s wealthiest countries closed their doors and ignored the calls for help. Samir Hannouf is just one of over 5 million Syrians who has fled the war ravaging his country. Coming to Europe wasn’t a whimsical choice. “I had my own business back home, a shop where I would sell and install heating systems,” Samir explains. He had to leave everything behind and start from zero. Reset.
Samir was among the luckiest. He managed to reach the Netherlands and his previous experience allowed him to start working relatively quickly as a bicycle technician. His skills, combined with the willingness of the Roetz Fair Factory in Amsterdam to support an integrative circular society, provided Samir with the chance to make a fresh start.
About 1,600 kilometres south, in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, the Ciclofactoría bike workshop builds new bikes from old, forgotten scraps and donates part of its proceeds to a local association helping Alzheimer’s victims, a disease that affects about 50 million people worldwide. “It’s a way to pay back people who donate their old bikes without expecting anything in return,” Borja Gascón, co-owner of Ciclofactoría explains.
Back in northern Europe, in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, circularity is becoming the new paradigm with which to support a fairer and more inclusive society. “Making Things Last”, the Scottish government’s circular economy strategy, is regarded as a milestone in the transition towards a sustainable approach that builds a strong economy whilst protecting natural resources and the environment.
Europeans generate around 5 tonnes of waste per person per year, of which almost half ends up in landfills. Not only is it time to call attention to the importance of Earth’s finite resources, but it is also time to highlight the value of each and every individual’s role within society. It is time to slow down the pace of production and the hectic rhythm of our daily routines as these blind us to the essential value of the planet and its people. A circular economy may be a good starting point.
Roetz: Building Bikes, Building People
At one of Amsterdam’s quiet docks, the Roetz Fair Factory hides a vibrant space where some 15 people have been dismantling, repairing and rebuilding bikes of all sorts and colours for about seven years. Here, each person has different traits, some wear glasses and move slowly, others have darker skin and smile widely, but they all seek a better future. The Roetz Fair Factory provides bicycle technician training for people who, for whatever reason, have poor job prospects, thus helping them enter the labour market. Samir has been working here for two years, four-days-a-week, and can now move on to work with Orbea, a bike giant that was looking for technicians and asked Roetz for suitable candidates.
Mischa Hoogeveen, head of production at Roetz, was in charge of guiding Samir through his learning process. Hoogeveen explains that the factory collects discarded bikes throughout Amsterdam. Over one million bikes are discarded every year in the Netherlands. Old, useless bikes at first, but with very valuable parts and materials. Roetz bicycles already achieve 30% circularity and even 70% when reworking the OV-fiets bike fleet, a national bike rental service with a fleet of about 8,000 bikes, from which 2,000 need to be replaced every year. The Roetz Fair Factory remanufactures 1,000 OV-fiets a year, which makes it the all-time largest bicycle remanufacturing programme in the Netherlands.
Now, they’re on their way to making a 100% circular bike, once again acting as pioneers by giving a second life to bikes as well as to people like Samir.
Mischa Hoogeveen, Roetz Fair Factory/credit Irene Baños Ruiz
Samir Hannouf, Roetz Fair Factory/credit Irene Baños Ruiz
Palmira: Back From Oblivion
Borja Gascón has always been passionate about life, and bikes are now at the core of that passion. When, together with his colleague Quico Gimeno, he decided to open the bike workshop Ciclofactoría in his home town of Zaragoza, Spain, he had a clear idea in mind: it wouldn’t be a typical shop where people buy without engaging with the product, without even thinking for a single minute about the incredible amount of materials and effort behind each bike. That’s far from the society Gascón and Gimeno believe in and, first and foremost, “if we continue to produce instead of reuse, we’ll exhaust all planetary resources,” Gascón states.
They’ve been repairing and selling second-hand bikes of all kinds for the last four years. However, 2018 was a turning point: they decided to create their own brand of second-life bicycles, the “Palmira” bikes. The Palmira bicycles are created out of old discarded frames that people donate to the project and are then combined with modern high-quality components. Furthermore, the remaining parts recovered when dismantling old bikes are also used to repair other second-hand bikes in the workshop, Gascón explains.
Although Palmira bikes are pure beauty, with a classic design reminiscent of the old days, the most beautiful part of this story is Ciclofactoría’s social commitment. The team donates 25% of profits to the fight against Alzheimer’s, thus contributing to improving the living conditions of both Alzheimer’s patients and their families. Donations go to the Association of Relatives of Alzheimer’s Patients (AFEDAZ), which supports relatives of patients with Alzheimer’s, improves patients’ living conditions and provides training for professionals in the sector. The name and social sensibility didn’t come by chance: Palmira was Gascón’s grandma and Gimeno’s aunt suffered from Alzheimer’s.
“By giving a second life to bicycles that fell into oblivion we want to remember our elders while supporting sustainable cities,” Gascón states firmly. In the near future, they wish to follow Roetz’s model and support people entering the labour market.
Make Things Last
Winters in Edinburgh, Scotland, are cold and wet, but after a walk through spaces that promote circularity, one warms up quickly. Here circularity is about much more than bikes.
For instance, the Edinburgh Remakery is a socially responsible shop promoting a zero waste society through the circular economy in the Scottish capital. It offers quality repaired products that would otherwise have ended up in landfills, whilst also helping people repair their own things, says Sophie Unwin, founder of the Remakery. Teaching people how to repair their furniture and electronic devices, among other activities, enables them to embed circularity in their daily lives. Unwin also knows of another good example in the city, a bakery whose leftover bread is used by brewing companies to produce beer.
Edinburgh Remakery/credit Irene Baños Ruiz
Edinburgh Remakery/credit Irene Baños Ruiz
About a 15 minute walk from the Remakery stands the Edinburgh Tool Library. A very peculiar library without a single book, but with a wide range of tools: from drills to hang pictures at home with, to semi-industrial saws for woodwork. Depending on the size and risks involved in the use of each tool, they can be borrowed or used at the library itself. Cécile Levavasseur, co-manager of the Tool Library, highlights that their business model allows for several users per tool instead of a single user for life.
Tool Library/credit Irene Baños Ruiz
Most of these tools, when owned by private individuals, are rarely used and have no greater utility than accumulating dust in a corner of our houses. It is estimated that a power drill owned by an individual is used for an average of 13 minutes over its entire lifetime. Yet, “we keep it for 30 years!”, Levavasseur jokes. A circular society would free individuals from the burden of piling stuff up at home with the only purpose of cluttering, while helping them save money and resources.
The Roetz Fair Factory, Ciclofactoría, the Edinburgh Remakery and the Edinburgh Tool Library are just a few of the thousands of examples around the world that make it possible for a circular economy to become a reality. They help societies transition away from throw-away models where economic benefit is the only goal. They support inclusive societies and, in short, a transition to a social economy. The only way to achieve authentic circularity.
Roetz Fair Factory, www.roetz-bikes.com/fairfactory
Edinburgh Remakery, www.edinburghremakery.org.uk
Edinbourgh Tool Library, https://edinburghtoollibrary.org.uk
Top image: Ciclofactoría