A circular economy: the wherefore and the why

Ever since the induction of the Industrial Revolution, the developed world has run on the concept of a linear economy. Based on the “take-make-waste,” model of production, a linear economy has been the preferred method of commerce since the mid-nineteenth century. In this model, natural resources are harvested and made into products to be sold. Since the natural resources are perceived to be unlimited, the products are created to be used until they are no longer wanted or needed, after which time their typical destination is a landfill. So products are designed for one user who then takes advantage of the product until it is used up or superseded by a new product. This “take-make-waste” method of production marks the beginning and end of product life in a linear economy.

The financial benefit to manufacturing concerns within a linear economy can be enormous, at least for some people. The greater the number of products sold, the larger the benefit to manufacturers and distributors. The purchase of new products is encouraged through frequent updates, fads, and planned obsolescence. Since it is the dominant economic model worldwide, little infrastructural development or lifestyle changes are needed to maintain the system.

The most important drawbacks of the linear system are that natural resources are limited. Mining them can be environmentally unsound, and it is often developing nations that pay the cost of the harm caused to both the environment and society by extracting the resources and manufacturing products from them.

So just what is a circular economy?

The World Economic Forum defines a circular economy as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.” Objects are designed to be reused, repaired, upgraded, and recycled. Since existing products remain in the production cycle much longer than they would in a linear economy, natural resources are conserved. Consumption of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources is avoided. Other benefits include limiting the expenditure of finite resources, placing less waste in landfills, and growing individual savings as products are used as long as practical, and in some cases are even upgradable, depending upon the product’s application and design.

A linear economy focuses on profitability; a circular economy functions with the concept of sustainability. Both linear and circular economies operate as their names imply: a linear process travels in a straight line from resource to product to waste while a circular one revolves around a cycle of producing, using, and reusing, upgrading, or recycling.

So obviously, if we are to consider the limits of natural resources, and their cost to the planet in both their extraction and eventual disposal, circularity is no longer a choice, it is a necessity.

People around the world

What does circularity look like in the real world?

Examples of real-world circularity are marked by several features:

  • Collaborative consumption – when consumers share products or services; that is, they rent or use the items for a time, after which they are returned to be used by other consumers. Ride-sharing ventures such as Uber or Lyft and space-sharing operations like Airbnb are two examples of shared consumption.
  • Product design – products are designed for long use, easy repair, and upgrade. Products remain in use longer than objects designed to be thrown away after limited use. Thus, less energy and material resources are used since fewer products are made. Also, products made from recycled materials are available.
  • Circular fashion – sometimes clothing is created by product designers with the idea of items being leased. Returned items are then sold as vintage clothing or recycled to create new things.
  • Deposits – consumers pay deposits for product containers and then receive the deposit when the containers are returned to the retailer. It’s an old practice that can and should be reinstituted in a major way.
  • Good old recycling – simply recycling everything possible goes a long way to keeping items out of the landfill and in circulation in one form or another.
  • Bartering – similar to collaborative consumption, usable goods that are no longer needed by one consumer can be traded to another.

Many companies manufacture their products based on a circular model:

  • IKEA has begun buying its products back from consumers and selling them second-hand. And more than 50 percent of IKEA’s inventory is made with recyclable material. They plan to have all their products made of only renewable or recycled objects by 2030.
  • Lush personal care products are remaking some of their products as solid bars which eliminates plastic bottle packaging.
  • MUD jeans are available for rent. Once consumers return them MUD recycles or repairs them.
  • Renault remanufactures auto components, uses recycled plastic, and has begun recycling electric batteries.
  • Carlsberg Beer uses sustainable inks on its product labels.
  • The jeans manufacturer Levi’s uses hemp and other sustainable substances 75 percent more often than the less sustainable cotton. Their waterless technology has reused or recycled six billion liters of water. Their SecondHand line offers vintage styles for sale.
Levis rear pocket

Drawbacks of a circular economy

The concept of a circular economy has drawn its share of criticism. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), there can be undesirable side effects of such a system. As reported by WRI, arguments against circularity include:

  • While employment is expected to increase in a circular economy, some sectors will experience job losses. The mining industry is expected to shrink. An estimated one million jobs are expected to be lost from jobs in the petroleum industry alone. On the bright side, 18 million new green jobs are expected by 2030.
  • Recycling has its share of environmental impacts, too. For one, resources can be consumed during the recycling process. “Recycling is only worthwhile,” according to WRI, “… if the resources required for recovery and recycling are less than those required for extraction and disposal.”
  • Consumer consumption continues to grow, and a circular economy isn’t always the answer. It may be easy for a consumer to fall into the trap of feeling justified to buy new products as replacements for those sent to be recycled or reused.

Benefits of a circular economy

While critics tout circularity's drawbacks, many believe the benefits outweigh the problems. The World Resources Institute, for example, reported five benefits:

  • Limited resources are conserved.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.
  • Less pollution means greater health for people and increased benefits for the Earth’s ecosystems.
  • The economy may be Improved through waste reduction and increased opportunities for innovation.
  • According to the International Labour Organization, a circular economy could create up to six million new Jobs by 2030.

No system, whether new or established, is without its disadvantages. As is true of so much in life, potential benefits must be weighed against any problems that may arise. But then again, considering the significant problems the world is experiencing due to the climate crisis, we have more to gain than that which may be lost in switching from the linear “take-make-waste” model to a “reduce, reuse, recycle” circular one.

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