Home / Sustainability / Can a Circular Economy Ensure a More Sustainable Future?

Can a Circular Economy Ensure a More Sustainable Future?

by | Apr 14, 2022 | Sustainability, Utopia




Living systems exist for centuries and will be around for many more. In a living world, there’s no landfill, instead materials flow. One species’ waste is another’s food. Energy is provided by the Sun, things grow then die and nutrients return to the soil safely. Then come humans who adopted a linear approach.

Human’s motto is, we take, we make and we dispose. A new phone comes out, so we dump the old one, our washing machine broke up, so we buy another. And each time we do this, we’re depleting our finite supply of resources and often produce toxic waste. In the long term, it simply can’t work.

Life is a circle, all that growth returns to where it began but we have broken that cycle. Our economy is growing unsustainably at the expense of nature. We extract millions of tons of natural resources every year and turn them into materials that we use and consume. Then we simply throw them away.

But what if we designed products that we can reuse, refurbish and repair. And only extract resources when we need them. We would use less new materials and energy and protect our natural wealth. Hence, this circular approach would boost the economy by contributing to innovation and growth as well as reducing pollution and helping the environment by preserving our precious natural resources.

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is one in which the value of a product is not only derived from its life cycle but also its future re-use. Materials used in manufacturing and consumer products are kept within the economy and productively reused, creating further value. This is an approach that seeks to extend the life cycle of products and materials.

This approach helps businesses to minimize the use of raw materials while ensuring future market competitiveness. Companies embracing the circular approach will determine their goals, evaluate processes and materials, and create policies and products that are environmentally friendly.

Re-use is an important aspect of this economy. It is the process by which products are used multiple times for their intended purpose. Shared use is another component of the circular economy. This process enables companies to share overcapacity, underutilized skills, and knowledge.

As a result, products can be reused to create additional products and reduce waste. These new ways of reducing waste and creating a sustainable society are gaining momentum all around the world. In the circular economy movement, the value of materials is captured and reused again, extending their useful life.

In this movement, raw materials and manufactured materials are given a long life before they end up in the hands of consumers. The basic concept involves re-designing products to be durable, repairable and recyclable. These processes are cyclical and resemble the way the natural world works. These products then loop back into the economy.

Why do we need a circular economy?

In the linear economy, raw materials are harvested, most often virgin and transformed into products through human labor, machinery, chemical processing and physical processing. Then once used by customers, it goes to a landfill or other disposal facilities. The concept of recycling is fundamentally flawed.

For example, a lightbulb company takes resources, like glass or metal, to manufacture its products. The company makes the bulb and sells it to a customer who uses it. Once the lightbulb burns out, I dispose of it. So neither the company nor the consumer will see that lightbulb ever again.

For the lightbulb company, it makes money by trying to buy materials for the lowest cost possible and sell as many bulbs as possible. This model operates as if there are infinite resources. Natural resources are taken from the environment to manufacture a product which is pushed to the end-users who then dispose of it.

excavator carrying waste in a big landfill
Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

This linear process creates a huge amount of problems which is detrimental to ecosystems. The world consumes 100 billion tons of materials per year but only 1% is put into durable products and the other 99% goes to waste.

That’s why the circular economy is being implemented as it treats materials like they are finite. A company using circularity in its process doesn’t just recycle products but maintains ownership and the model looks more like make, use and return.

This concept of circularity is a way of doing business that takes a product and its life cycle from the moment it leaves a farm to the time it hits our hands. Its process begins long before a consumer touches it and its life cycle is much longer than the linear system.

While reusing and redistributing products, their lifespan increases. Recycling systems are essential, but production must also be radically transformed to make it feasible. Manufacturing processes themselves still have an environmental impact. This impact comes from energy and water consumption.

And the concept of clothing rental may soon replace the personal ownership of clothing. A company called Mintel says that the rental industry will grow rapidly over the next few years. Not to mention that the phenomenon called fast fashion is extremely detrimental to the planet.

The concept of the circular economy focuses on designing products that last for decades, rather than disposing of them. The idea is to reduce the need for new products and reduce waste by restoring valuable nutrients from materials. Hence, the concept can be beneficial to the environment and the economy.

It reduces waste and helps natural systems regenerate. It also creates benefits for society. The linear approach is not sustainable and it has always been proven to be unviable since the First Industrial Revolution. We have become a society where we’re relying on resources that we cannot replenish. A circular approach could offer us a sustainable way to do business.

Importance of circular economy

A growing number of people around the world are concerned about the environment and the importance of a circular economy. After all, 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with an ecological deficit, and every year, 100 billion tons of resources flow into the global economy.

About 60% of that flows out as waste or greenhouse gas emissions. The circular movement goes beyond just recycling to look at how each product and component affects the environment and eliminate waste streams through regenerative design.

A major objective of a circular economy is to decouple economic growth from resource consumption. By decoupling economic growth from resource use, circularity can lead to lower input costs and create new profit streams. A reduction in production costs can be achieved through the recycling of products.

A circular approach is a way of reducing waste and maximizing value creation. End-of-life products are kept within the economic loop and recycling, creates further value.

A circular model is a system of tight product cycles. It differs from recycling and disposal because it aims to protect natural capital and balance flows of renewable resources. It also distinguishes between biological and technical cycles.

The latter is designed to feedback into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. This model reduces materials costs and waste streams. In addition, it reduces environmental impact by restoring ecosystem services.

The benefits of a circular economy are clear. Businesses and consumers alike stand to benefit from greater satisfaction with products. Moreover, this model encourages economic growth and greater security of raw materials.

It also encourages the creation of innovative and durable products for consumers, thereby increasing their quality of life and saving them money in the long run. If implemented properly, circularity can help businesses to create more profitable and sustainable products.

Future of circular economy

The switch to a circular economy is being pushed by regulatory agencies around the world. The European Union has launched a strategy for sustainable textiles to make them more recyclable and energy-efficient. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to protect consumers’ rights to repair electronics and tools.

Such measures will help reduce the amount of electrical waste in landfills and extend product lifecycles. In the meantime, many companies and governments are making progress in creating recycling and refurbishing systems.

One example is NIKE, the sportswear manufacturing company has been focusing on waste management by using recycled materials and upcycled crop waste to manufacture its athletic apparel. NIKE also uses certified Better Cotton and recycled polyester in its products. Furthermore, it optimizes water and energy usage.

The circular approach will require significant changes to the way companies do business. The key to making it work is educating people and changing mindsets. Education is key to the future of the circular economy. New skills are needed to deliver a circular approach.

To deliver on that promise, educational reform must include recycling programs as a core part of the national curriculum. The need for circularity cannot be overstated. With an ever-growing number of plastics in the oceans, rampant air pollution and uncontrolled wastewater disposal, we are faced with a series of challenges.

Europe, for example, generates 2.5 billion tons of waste every year. EU authorities are working to update waste management laws and promote a circular economy.

In addition to recycling, the circular model eliminates waste. Companies will reduce their dependence on raw materials, which will protect them from climate change and geopolitical crises. Moreover, this approach also reduces their carbon footprint. So, in summary, the circular model can help save the environment while maintaining economic growth.

Another example of circularity is the development of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab. The lab has spawned dozens of projects and a global community. The concept of a circular economy is becoming more mainstream thanks to efforts by companies and NGOs. As this movement gains momentum, we must start looking at ways to implement it on a larger scale. Its future looks bright and now is the time to make a shift.