What Is the Circular Economy?

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The circular economy strives to eliminate all waste by maximizing the reuse of resources. From design to eventual recycling, the priority of a circular economy is efficiency. For example, paper waste from one industry may be recycled to make cardboard or tissue paper. When that paper has served its purpose, it is further recycled, and what cannot be recycled is used for composting or burned for energy.

In a perfect circular economy, everything we use could either be remanufactured for use or returned to the environment as a raw material. While it has broad applications for economists and business owners, understanding the circular economy for the consumer is important as well, because it reframes and expands the standard thinking on recycling. The well-known mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is just the start. The driving force behind a circular economy adds several principles that extend the use of anything: repair, remanufacture, and recover. These multiply the ways we can get more use out of anything, saving both money and the environment.

Foundations of the Circular Economy

A truly circular economy would look much like its inspiration: nature. Everywhere you look, natural processes are closed loops. The water cycle enables water to be continually cycled through every state of matter. The food chain begins with plants absorbing the sun’s energy and ends with plants absorbing the Earth’s nutrients.

These biological processes are the inspiration for the technical processes that would drive a fully circular economy. The principles that would enable a circular economy would shift design to a focus on reuse. Much of what is created today pollutes or results in waste by design. In addition, a circular economy would require many additional processes that keep material in use. These include collection facilities and factories that refurbish and refine products.

Finally, a circular economy relies on the protection of natural systems. Even inorganic material, like computers and cars, are made from materials harvested in nature. A circular economy would ultimately see that what we take from natural systems is eventually returned in some way.

Practices of a Circular Economy

In application, closing the loop can be very complicated. It requires changes at every level of production and industry. Yet we’re already seeing changes that make a circular economy more and more possible, including:

1. Uses Renewable Energy

It’s projected that renewable energy could provide up to 30 percent of global energy demand by 2023. Wind power, solar energy, and hydropower provide clean sources of unlimited energy that do not pollute the environment, unlike the traditional use of fossil fuels. The use of renewable energy plays a huge part in closing the loop in a circular economy.

2. Promotes Sharing Resources

You’re likely already familiar with the sharing economy — 86.5 million Americans are predicted to participate in the sharing economy by 2021. Rideshares, home rentals, peer-to-peer equipment rentals, and a variety of other sharing services help maximize the use of items in a circular economy. Sharing a tool that the average person might not use often keeps you from buying an item that goes to waste.

3. Improves Efficiency

There are many ways that efficiency is essential to an economy where nothing is wasted. Energy efficiency and reduction of excess are both important factors that may come to mind first. When thinking of efficiency in terms of a circular economy, the main goal is to ensure that nothing is wasted.

4. Incorporates Digital Technology

Moving communications and documents from physical to digital copies reduces the need for paper, as well as the space required to store files and books. Digital technology allows for virtual meetings in a waste-free space and telecommutes that eliminate the need for the pollution of driving.

5. Closes the Loop

This means prioritizing the reuse of both organic and inorganic materials. For organic materials, this means finding ways to break down things like papers to return nutrients and energy to the soil after recycling. For inorganic materials like machinery or plastic components, closing the loop would mean remanufacturing these products or their components so they can be used to make a new product.

6. Improves Technologies

A circular economy requires the continual design and production of better technologies. While the circular economy should not strive for infinite growth, better technologies are essential for truly efficient products that can fully utilize the waste of other industries. For example, many suggest a move towards 3D printing technologies rather than traditional manufacturing techniques, as they have the potential to greatly reduce manufacturing waste.

How You Can Get Involved

The circular economy does not only exist among factories and businesses. As consumers and purchasers, you are arguably one of the most important parts of any economic system. Plus, thinking more in the context of a circular economy will help you get the most out of your purchases, reduce wasteful spending, and save you money in the long run. If you want to maximize the use of materials and reduce waste, here are everyday steps you can take:

1. Reduce

Avoid purchasing foods and products that are directly harmful to the environment or produce significant waste, like single-use plastic. Now, understanding the concept of a circular economy, you can take this practice of reduction further, by reducing the items you buy that can’t be reused, refurbished, or upgraded in any way before being thrown out or recycled.

2. Reuse

Even if you can’t personally get any use out of a possession any longer, think of the broader system in a circular economy and ensure your items get to someone who can reuse them. Sell old clothes on eBay or rent out your lawnmower when you don’t need it.

3. Repurpose

Understand that recycling isn’t always possible. Even though recycling is an essential part of a more sustainable society, it still often produces a lower-quality product, known as down-cycling. Rather than moving a product closer to being unusable, repair and reuse extends the lifetime of all products. For example, even though a glass jar can be recycled, this requires energy, time, and could create wastage. Instead of down-cycling, you could keep the glass jar and up-cycle it into food storage or a craft container. Or even though your old papers can be recycled, consider using the blank backsides as scratch paper to extend their use before recycling.

4. Remanufacture

Just like businesses replace their raw materials with previously used, recycled materials, look into buying goods second-hand rather than new. In your home, buy used furniture and re-upholster using recycled fabrics.

5. Recover

Even if an item is beyond repair and can serve no further use to someone, you can still recover energy from its destruction. On the large scale, this often refers to burning materials when reasonable to harness energy. In your home, you can use food scraps as compost that restores nutrients to the soil. Use this soil to grow your own food and continue the cycle.

6. Recycle

Finally, once an item has served its purpose, you can recycle it. Make the process more efficient by taking the time to educate yourself on the types of plastic that can be recycled, and if your local facility has the capability for every type.

Sources: EllenMacarthurFoundation | ActiveSustainability | Circle-Economy | GreenBiz | Medium | McKinsey | ClimateRealityProject | GoodNet | TechRepublic | UPS |

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