- Circularity is critical to addressing the challenges of climate change, resource scarcity, and biodiversity loss
- As a materials-intensive industry, healthcare has significant scope to reverse the dominant linear economic model
- Driving resource efficiency requires us to look beyond the design and production of hardware and take an integrated view of equipment, services and digital solutions
Circularity is often presented as a fresh, new answer to humankind’s pressing environmental challenges. In actual fact, ‘circular’ is not new at all. Pre-industrialization, it was the dominant economic model. Nothing was lost or discarded, everything was re-used, repaired, repurposed or recycled. And so the wheel went round.
The 19th century saw the rise of the linear economy, where raw materials are transformed into products that are used until they are discarded as waste. This ‘take-make-waste’ model was driven by, among other things, the industrial revolution and the availability of cheap energy thanks to coal and steam. It is a polluting model that drives global environmental challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss.
Linear became totally dominant with mass production and the rise of the consumer society after World War II. That same period also saw, in response, the reintroduction of circular thinking. Key milestones included Boulding’s influential 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, the publication of Braungart and McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, and the advent of think-tanks such as the Biomimicry Institute and Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
So where do we stand today? To focus minds and drive progress, many ambitious climate and circular economy targets have been set. The European Union, for example, wants to achieve a circular economy by 2050 as a precursor to becoming net-zero and halting biodiversity loss. The Netherlands was the first country to set a 100% circularity target for 2050, with the ambition to halve primary resource use by 2030. And the United Kingdom has adopted an ambitious program to deliver a net-zero National Health Service by 2050. But, on the whole, as IPCC chair Hoesung Lee commented, “We are walking when we should be sprinting." 
The harsh reality is that the global situation is getting worse year-on-year, driven by rising material extraction and use: from 9.1% of global production based on circular economy principles in 2018, to 8.6% 2020, and now 7.2% in 2023 . Statistics like these underline the need to rapidly accelerate the adoption of circularity. And nowhere more so than in healthcare.