What is a circular economy and how can it solve some of the problems with waste, pollution, and climate change?
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In all of my round-ups of brands and products, I try to include as many circular brands as possible. And in each of those pieces, I give a one or two-sentence description of what circular brands are and an answer to the question, “What is a circular economy?” In brief, they’re brands that aim not to create waste, but rather products that can be repurposed or recycled to create other products.
The short version of circularity is certainly interesting enough. With that definition in mind, you can feel good about buying circular products. But what’s wrong with the traditional linear economy? What does circularity look like outside of a few specific brands? What does circularity have to offer and how can we engage with it? Read on to learn all about circularity.
The Traditional Model: The Linear Economy
In order to understand the circular economy, it’s important to first understand the traditional model that it aims to replace: the linear economy. In this model, raw resources are used to create a product for consumers. That product may end up in a family home forever, in a landfill, or even in a recycling center. But there’s no guarantee or expectation that the product will make its way back into the production line; in fact, the expectation is that it will become waste.
The creation of excess waste is highly problematic not only in the United States but around the world. We’re in the midst of a waste crisis. 2.1 billion tons of municipal solid waste are generated globally each year. Only 54% of it is disposed of sustainably. The rest ends up in landfills where it decomposes and produces greenhouse gases.
Another key issue with the linear economy is the use of raw resource materials. Back in 2017, a report by the International Resource Panel estimated that nearly 90 billion tons of resource materials before the end of the year. The report also compiled evidence from studies that suggest that raw material use contributes to large-scale pollution. It also suggests that this pollution, coupled with other environmental and infrastructural problems brought on by raw material use, has been linked with premature death.
And of course, when a product is expected to end up as waste, it’s built in a way that reflects that. This process–the active shortening of a product’s lifespan–is called planned obsolescence and we can think of it as a side-effect of the linear economy.
If you’ve ever been frustrated by the release of new tech or found that your old devices are incompatible with other devices or features you want to use, you have some firsthand experience with planned obsolescence. Creating new tech can be a good thing, but often it comes at the expense of old tech. This in turn creates the demand to buy the new tech. And of course, this happens with the other sectors as well. The problems associated with the linear economy are complicated. At the end of the day, the linear economy promotes an unsustainable cycle of resource depletion, waste, and the need for newer products. But the linear economy isn’t the only model out there.
The Circular Economy
The alternative to the linear economy is the circular closed-loop economy. In this model, rather than using limited raw materials and accumulating waste, manufacturers take reusable, regenerable, recycled, and repurposed materials that can be turned into products and eventually put back in the production line (or disposed of in ways that don’t create waste).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one of the leading institutions doing research on the circular economy. They’ve created many resources to help educate businesses, governments, and individuals on the circular economy. Take a look at their Circular Economy System Diagram below.
While you may think of the circular economy model as simply upcycling, there’s so much more to it. In a circular economy resources and products can be shared and repurposed, agricultural products can be farmed sustainably, and the biosphere can be restored.
Benefits of Circularity
On a smaller scale, various industries and businesses can implement circular systems to do their part in limiting waste accumulation and the depletion of natural resources. Beyond giving us a way to get rid of our unwanted items, what exactly are the benefits of circularity?
Back in 2015, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey Sustainability (a sustainability-focused consultancy company) revealed the revolutionary advantages of the circular economy. They suggested that implementing a circular economy in Europe could decrease carbon emissions by 48% by 2030. They also predicted an additional .6% annual economic growth and a cost saving of €600 billion euros a year.
Some of the other benefits of the circular economy are obvious when compared with the linear economy. By avoiding raw material use and even regenerating certain natural resources, the circular economy curbs many of the environmental problems associated with the linear economy.
A circular economy promotes products that are built to last. From the creation of more durable products to a more widespread effort to refurbish, circularity aims to increase the shelf life of consumer products. And when those products are no longer in use, they can be transformed or broken down into something new, rather than just tossed aside. This is a major shift from the linear economy’s built-to-become-waste model.
Tips for Engaging with Circularity
While circularity works best for businesses, there are ways to engage as an individual. Below, I’ve laid out a few tips to help you get started!
- Mind your waste: Reducing waste is a fundamental part of circularity. Most of the other tips will stem from this basic principle. But at the simplest level, reducing waste can mean limiting the single-use plastics you purchase, starting to compost, or learning to mend your clothing. Here’s a great guide for beginner composters and my beginner’s guide to going zero/low waste.
- Redistribute: Another key element of circularity is the redistribution of products. Again, this is a form of waste reduction; rather than sending things to a landfill you can give them away. Whether you’re donating to a local thrift or consignment store, or giving something to a local free store, redistributing items you no longer use is a great way to increase their lifespan and engage in circularity in your community.
- Recycle (and repurpose) the right way: Recycling is really complicated but also really important. There are so many items that you can recycle, but you might not know it. If you’re unsure, check with your recycling program’s website. And for specific recycling centers, check out this useful recycling center finder.
- Shop circular: As I mentioned above, circularity may just be the next big thing in fashion. From brands that reintroduce their old products into their production line to brands that make garments from waste, there are so many great innovations in circularity within the fashion industry. You can check my guide of circular brands as a good jumping-off point!