For centuries we have mined and extracted materials from the earth, often causing great harm to ecosystems and wildlife. Then we make materials, products and packaging that we use, in many cases just once. When we feel we no longer want or need these things, we simply throw them ‘away’. This is the take-make-waste model of a linear economy. It is unquestionably outdated.
This current linear economy is causing large-scale and sometimes irreparable harm to our planet, people and to animals. Some of the environmental issues arising from this archaic linear system are: resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and mass extinction, plastic pollution, ocean pollution and environmental degradation, global warming and climate change.
Some of the social issues arising are: poverty, inequality, job insecurity, poor working conditions, poor access to clean water and sanitation, and lack of access to quality education. One of the most troubling things about the environmental breakdown and climate crisis is that often the people (and certainly the animals) that have little or nothing to do with causing these issues are the ones that are often most affected.
What does a circular economy look like?
A circular economy is based on reducing consumption, waste and pollution through better design of materials, products and packaging. It also prioritises reverse logistics trends and practices to ensure the return of those goods back into the system where they can be reused, repaired or recycled. These are the five Rs of a circular economy, according to MeetthefiveRs:
REDUCE – REUSE – RECYCLE – REPAIR – RETURN
At its core, it involves keeping goods ‘in the loop’ for as long as possible, if not indefinitely. Ideally businesses or networks of businesses can create their own closed loop systems so the individual or group can eliminate their need for virgin or non-renewable materials, resources and energy. A circular economy will also look to regenerate our natural ecosystems and repair the damage inflicted by the linear economy.
Examples of the five Rs in action:
Reduce: Reducing food waste by creating a market for odd-looking fruits and vegor by redirecting food surpluses from businesses directly to customers.
Reuse: Reusing packaging through distribution and collection schemes for high volume products like household cleaning products or upmarket spirits. Also think Refillable solutions.
Recycle: Local recycling of plastic waste into high quality products like plant pots or stools.
Repair: Designing smartphones, tablets and laptopsso they are easily repairable.
Return: Ensuring the return of packaging to the original businesses so they can be reused for as long as possible.
To learn more about the five Rs, click here.
So what can you do?
There is no such thing as ‘waste’ in natural systems (ie ecosystems). One organism’s waste inevitably becomes food for another. Life on our planet has evolved in this way in near-perfect balance for millions of years and we would do well to take note. It is our challenge to find ways to transform our ‘waste’ into valuable materials for other processes and so remove the need for landfill and eradicate pollution.
Businesses in particular have a crucial role to play in making the circular economy a reality. This starts with looking at exactly what is going into your business and what goes out. Input can be things like products, packaging, energy and water. Output can be things like plastics, food waste, electronics, chemicals and the list goes on.
Thanks to MeetthefiveRs for this fantastic artle to explain Circular Economy - you can check out the inventory of case studies and how to guides to find inspiration for ways your business can contribute to a circular economy.