What is the circular economy?
There is no doubt that a transformation of current systems is needed to solve some of our most pressing global challenges. Rethinking the way we design, make and use products can ensure a thriving circular economy – one that can tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, while addressing social inequalities.
Our current linear economic model is often described as a “take, make, waste” system. We use up finite reserves to create products that we eventually throw away, and it’s costing our planet. Today, we’re using about 1.6 earths – about 60% more of the earth’s resources than it can regenerate every year. Estimates suggest that by 2050 we could get to 3-4 earths.
A circular approach stops waste from being created in the first place, circulates resources and helps regenerate nature. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which was instrumental in spreading the concept of circular economy and sustainability in Europe and the US, this approach “decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources”
Reinforcing the link between the circular economy and sustainability, this system is made possible through a transition to renewable energy and materials. This economic approach is usually visualised with a butterfly diagram, illustrating the continuous flow of materials. This includes two cycles: the technical cycle is where products and materials are kept in circulation by prioritising things like reuse, repair and recycling, and the biological cycle where the nutrients from biodegradable materials help to regenerate nature.
The biological cycle mainly centres on consumable products, such as food, but it can also incorporate other biodegradable materials like cotton or wood. These may have made their way from the technical cycle once they have degraded so much that they can no longer be used to make new products.
The technical cycle involves steps which allow materials to stay in use rather than go to waste. These include sharing (for example, tool sharing platforms), maintaining, reusing, redistributing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling.
While recycling is part of the technical cycle, a circular approach aims to avoid this stage at all costs. Our economic system is not going to change overnight to become waste free, recycling does have its place within the circular economy but true circular economy innovations go beyond recycling facilities. According to the World Economic Forum, “In a properly built circular economy, one should rather focus on avoiding the recycling stage at all costs. It may sound straightforward, but preventing waste from being created in the first place is the only realistic strategy.”
Circular economy principles
The circular economy is a framework underpinned by three principles. They are:
Eliminate waste and pollution:
Waste is a concept that we have introduced. From single-use plastics like our crisp packets to bigger structures like roads, our world is filled with products that have had waste designed into them as a stage of its life cycle.
Circular economy waste is much different to that of the linear economy. Much of the waste that results from our current linear economic model ends up in landfills or incinerators. But in a circular economy, waste is considered a design flaw.
Keeping products and materials in use:
The second principle of a circular economy is to circulate products and materials at their highest value. What this means is keeping materials in use: either as the product itself or as components or raw materials. It eliminates waste and it retains the value of the materials and products. The technical and biological cycle are ways that products and materials can be kept in circulation, and products should be designed to fit into these two cycles are use.
Regenerate natural systems:
By moving to a circular approach, we help nature to nature to thrive, moving from extraction to regeneration. This involves regenerative farming and agricultural practices that allow nature to rebuild soils and boost biodiversity.
The benefits: circular economy and sustainability
Adopting a circular economy can help grow prosperity, jobs and resilience. Some studies show how transitioning to a circular economy could create new jobs across industrial sectors due to new operations and processes focused on service-based economy. This positive impact on employment can be attributed to increased spending fuelled by lower prices, high-quality recycling activities, and higher skilled jobs in remanufacturing.
Economic growth would be achieved by adopting a circular approach through increased revenues from new circular activities and lower cost of production due to more efficient use of materials. There are also massive creative and innovation opportunities from technological development to improved materials.
There are also the clear environmental benefits of the circular economy from regeneration of degraded natural systems and reduced carbon emissions to a reduction of primary material consumption and improved land productivity and soil health. It’s clear that our current systems have led to climate change, and the harmful impacts of that are only getting worse – from floods to wildfires. According to some studies, our current linear system – which depends on extraction – is responsible for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss.
Today, we produce over two billion tonnes of solid waste which is only expected to grow, and about one-third of this is not managed properly. There is also the issue of food waste. While 22% of global emissions and 30% of energy consumption comes from the food sector, nearly one-third of all food produced is wasted. In terms of textiles, it’s expected that we will throw away 148 million tonnes of clothing each year by 2030.
Circular economy and sustainability are interlinked. Switching to renewable energy is vital to tackling the climate crisis and would cut 55% of global emissions. But, in order to reach our net zero ambition and limit global warming to less than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, we need to adopt a circular approach which transforms the way we make and use things.
The remaining emissions – mostly associated with industry, agriculture and land use – can be tackled through the circular economy and sustainability.
We can tackle the climate crisis within each principle of the circular economy. By eliminating waste and pollution, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain. By circulating products and materials, we retain their embodied energy. And by regenerating nature, we sequester carbon in soil and products.
Similarly, each principle underpinning a circular economy can help boost biodiversity. By eliminating waste and pollution we can help reduce threats to biodiversity. Through circulating products and materials we leave room for biodiversity, including the preservation of natural areas. And when we regenerate nature, we enable biodiversity to thrive.
Circular economy waste
Designing out waste is key to the circular economy, and now – driven by factors such as consumer demand and cost saving opportunities – many organisations are innovating to eliminate materials like plastic. One sector that has quickly adopted this approach is the fast-moving consumer goods industry, with over two thirds of UK consumers wanting to see greater use of paper-based packaging which can go into kerbside recycling collections, and 36% of Europeans boycotting brands over packaging sustainability concerns.
One of these companies is Planet Mark certified Flexi Hex, a company providing an innovative packaging sleeve made from recycled paper that protects fragile products in transit. It acts as an alternative for unsustainable packaging like bubble wrap or air-filled plastic, helping to minimise excess waste and plastic.
The Beeswax Wrap Co is another company born out of a gap in the market for plastic-free packaging alternatives. Their founder Fran wanted a more sustainable alternative to cling film to use in the kitchen and so developed a wrap made from British beeswax and organic cotton. Now, The Beeswax Wrap Co offers a collection of sustainable plastic-free products for the home, all handcrafted in a solar-powered workshop in the Cotswolds.
Without a rigorous waste strategy, many items can unnecessarily end up in landfill. Businesses and organisations are increasingly embarking on zero-waste-to-landfill targets, with an aim of streamlining several business processes to meet this goal. Our free waste output and reduction toolkit can help your organisation with the first steps in measuring and reducing waste.