Insights on the Circular Economy
By Stuart Bloom
It’s clear that humans are having a negative effect on the environment when it comes to the amount of waste that is produced. Whilst efforts are being made to increase recycling and the use of recycled materials in mainstream products, there is still plenty of waste that is going to landfill, and sitting in the ground for hundreds of years.
This is far from sustainable. When waste in landfill finally begins to decompose, it gives off harmful toxins and greenhouse gases, and can leak out into the surrounding soil and harm the ecosystem around it. These issues can remain for many years, and are a health hazard for people living near the landfill. As the world population grows, this is affecting an increasing number of people, not to mention the effect on nearby animals and plants.
But with continued demand for quickly produced, inexpensive items, how can we try and solve the problem of global waste? In this post, we take a look at how the world needs to change if we’re to live in harmony with the planet.
Circular Economy and Linear Economy
Currently, many manufacturers around the world follow a linear economy model. They extract materials from the earth, create a product, consumers use the product, and then throw it away at the end of its useful life. There is no consideration in the manufacturing process around reducing waste, whether that’s material waste or excess energy use – what matters is creating a popular product.
In comparison, the circular economy has three key principles: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials at their highest value, and regenerating nature. It focuses on using renewable energy sources to power production, as well as making sure that waste is reduced at every stage of the process. The aim is to make products last as long as possible, and this is incorporated into the initial design of the item to make sure it’s fit for that purpose.
The circular economy ideology also works with perishable goods like food. For example, Apeel has created an edible coating that can be applied to fruit and vegetables to keep them fresh for longer, by slowing down water loss and oxidation. Rather than just removing plastic food wrap, they are ensuring that the product gets the maximum life.
How does it Differ from Recycling?
Whilst at first glance it seems like the circular economy is just the same as recycling, it goes even further. Recycling primarily focuses on getting more from materials at the end of a product’s lifecycle, but the circular economy focuses on reducing waste the whole way through the process, not just at the end.
In the circular model, recycling comes after every other option is exhausted – the item should have been reused enough that recycling only comes when you physically cannot get another use out of the product.
Why is it Important?
The circular economy is vital if we want to cut waste and therefore reduce our carbon emissions – experts suggest that the circular economy could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 39%. In addition, there are only finite quantities of resources such as oil and metal ore. Currently, many businesses are not built around using limited amounts of these supplies, and continue to offer products that require them.
At some point, they will run out. The circular economy focuses on reducing the amount of non-renewable resources that companies rely on, and reusing what has already been extracted. For example, mobile phones contain gold pieces, and yet we often leave them lying around in a cupboard for years, before eventually throwing them in the bin. If companies created an easy way to return those items when you upgrade, then they could get hold of the materials inside. Then, rather than needing to dig for metal ore, they’d have easy access to it to create new items.
It’s unlikely to be an easy switch from linear to circular, but clearly the impact on the environment is worth the effort. It can be a key component of going greener for businesses in particular, in order to meet national and personal sustainability targets. Going green can also be an attractive option for businesses that want to retain the custom of younger, more sustainably-minded clients.
It could also create a more reliable supply chain, as it avoids the need for a constant flow of new materials to create products. This can often be disrupted as companies need to buy these materials from other places, who in turn need to extract them. Reducing the number of materials used will therefore create a smoother process, as well as again reducing the environmental impact. The circular economy has also been shown to reduce costs for a number of industries, so it’s both beneficial to profit and the planet.
How to Move Towards a Circular Economy
Use Less, Repair More
One way to reduce your carbon footprint and move towards circularity is to simply own less, and make sure that the items you have are quality items that will be useful to you for a long time. In a world that values always being on-trend and fast fashion this can be hard to do, but thinking long term will reduce the amount of waste that you generate.
You should also have a repair mentality: if something breaks, try and repair it, rather than just buying a new one. If an item is no longer fit for purpose, consider if you can upcycle it, or use the materials to create something new before recycling it.
This extends to companies too, who should actively create or connect with schemes for employees to get their tech refurbished, for example, rather than just buying them a new laptop every few years. Businesses should examine their entire process and try to find ways to streamline it and reduce waste, especially those who produce physical products.
To Sum Up
Switching to the circular economy model is not the easiest transition to make. It requires a change of mindset, and widespread adoption and commitment from a lot of people and businesses. However, doing so is the only way that we can create long-lasting change.