Butterfly Diagram: Journey to Circularity

Atualizado: 24 de Mar de 2020

Image 1: Butterfly Diagram - Image reproduced from the original diagram - Source: “Growth within” (2015) - Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment

The Butterfly Diagram is a powerful tool that helps us to understand the application of the Circular Economy model in practice. In a single image, we have a holistic view of the main assumptions of the model, the proposed changes and the various solutions that facilitate the transition. This diagram, which was inspired by the model of the authors of the book/ methodology Cradle to Cradle (C2C), was developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and is presented as a tool for explaining the model, in several of the reports, presentations and other activities promoted by this organization.

There are 3 guiding principles that must be considered in the transition to the Circular Economy, which we’ll explain in more detail in this article:

  1. “Preserving natural capital”, promoting the effective use of finite resources and balancing the use of renewable resources (Image 1 - Top).

  2. Enhance the usefulness of products, components and materials, keeping them circulating in the Economy up to the capacity limit (Image 1 - Middle).

  3. Develop effective systems that minimize the volume of waste that ends in landfills and negative externalities (Image 1 - Base).

1. “Preserving natural capital”

At the top of the diagram, we can see that there is a separation between renewable feedstocks, called biological nutrients and finite materials or technical nutrients. There are very clear features that distinguish these two cycles: biological nutrients, in addition to being renewable, have the ability to decompose when returned to nature (eg: wood, paper, cork, cotton, etc.); while the technical nutrients, in addition to being finite, do not decompose, which is why their useful life should be prolonged to the limit of their capacity (eg aluminium, iron, plastic, etc.) (image 1).

Image 2: "Preserve Natural Capital"

Naturally, this model can only be effectively regenerating and restoring, if the energy that feeds the entire process is “clean” energy, coming from renewable sources.

Additionally, processes and products must be thought and designed to streamline and enhance this model. The design of the products must be rethought in order to facilitate the separation of each of its components so that it can be sent to the correct cycle. For this purpose, the products must be designed with a modular structure, avoiding glues or other types of joints, which make the separation and reuse of its components difficult. The choice of materials is also of high importance: toxic components must be eliminated, to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the processes and to protect public health and the environment. The digitization of processes is also relevant as it promotes greater efficiency in the use of resources and in the activities carried out (image 2).

2. Enhance the usefulness of products, components and raw materials

Image 3: Productive Cycle

When analyzing the existing processes between the extraction of resources and the buyer, we can verify that: there is a separation between the parts manufacture and the product manufacture, as this separation promotes a uniformity of the components, which facilitates their continuous reintroduction in the system economic; instead of product sellers, we have service providers, as this model advocates business models that optimize the use of resources and where features such as quality, modular design, durability, easy repair, adaptability and circularity are a competitive advantage, as the “Product as a Service” and “Sharing Economy” models, which we discussed in more detail in our ebook (the ebook it's only available in Portuguese, but soon we will provide an English version). There is also a distinction between consumer and user, as the name indicates the biological nutrients are consumed (ex: food items, paper, etc.) and the technical nutrients are used, and this use can be shared (ex: tools, bicycles, appliances, etc.) (image 3).

Image 4: "Technical Nutrients"

As mentioned in the technical nutrients cycle, the alternatives proposed aim to restore the stock of finite resources. In this sense, there is a set of solutions that allow extending the life cycle of products and components.

In the first instance, alternatives that allow the maintenance and repair of products should be facilitated, in order to extend their useful life. Solutions that promote shared use of products should also be favoured, enhancing their usefulness. When a user no longer wants a particular product, there must then be made available channels that allow its collection, maintenance and redistribution. When a product becomes obsolete, or can no longer be repaired, it must be sent out in order to be disassembled and its components used for the production of new products. When none of these solutions is feasible, then the resources must be directed to the appropriate recycling processes (image 4).

Image 5: "Biological Nutrients"

On the side of biological nutrients, the solution closest to the consumer is the cascade, where the resources are cyclically reused for several purposes, depending on their applicability. This alternative can be applied in many cases as is the example of fabrics of natural origin: clothes made of organic cotton can be reused to produce new pieces or accessories, which in turn can be reused to produce insulation material for construction or filling for pillows or bean bags. The same applies to materials such as cork or wood.

Biochemical materials can be extracted from biological nutrients for the production of biogas. The remaining nutrients can be safely returned to the biosphere in the form of compost, thus regenerating the soil and its fertility and closing the nutrient cycle (image 5).

Image 6: "The power of the inner circle/circling longer"

In both cycles, whenever possible, the alternatives closest to the user/consumer should be favoured, since the closer to the user these are, the smaller the resources, time, money and people needed and the greater the integrity and quality of the materials are maintained and respected. In addition, measures must be applied to extend the time that each component remains in each cycle, thus reducing the need to produce new components, which leads to a continued reduction in the dependence of “virgin” resources (image 6).

3. Develop effective systems that minimize negative externalities

Image 7: Effective Systems

With the continuous, integrated and systemic application of this model by the industries and their communities, it’s possible not only to minimize the volume of resources that end in a landfill, but also the negative externalities that are generated with the activities of the industries.

For a long time organizations have been focused on doing less harm, focusing on the efficiency of processes. The problem is that “less harm” is still doing harm, but to a lesser extent, a situation that does not solve the problem and does not contribute to solving the current environmental challenges that lie ahead, due to the unsustainable system that has been applied in recent decades. The focus should be on doing well (effectiveness) and building resilient systems, which effectively serve the needs of communities and contribute to their evolution. Doing well involves creating value for all parties involved, including organizations, communities, living beings and the environment (image 7).


Author: Mariana Pinto e Costa (Co-founder BeeCircular)

Contact us: beecircular.geral@gmail.com


(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards The Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for accelerated transition, EMF, London, 2013

(2) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards The Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains, EMF, London, 2014

(3) Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, 2015, Growth within: A circular economy vision for a competitive Europe, EMF and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, Isle of Wight.

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