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What is the circular economy? Examples and diagrams

Circular Economy: What is it and why it’s what we should be aiming for

 

Recently, news of the launch of Loop the “circular delivery system” has hit the headlines. But what is a circular economy? In this post I explain, and show how we can go from a “linear” to a “circular” economy with diagrams and examples. 

 

Every few years, the definition of “eco-friendly” shifts slightly.

Not so long ago, a product coming in recyclable packaging was seen as the absolute beacon of sustainablility. This then shifted to products coming in packaging that was both recyclable and already recycled. Then, within the last year or so, we’ve seen the rise in completely biodegradable and compostable packaging.

I mean, we’ve already spoken about the bamboo trend taking over the world in 2019!

Most recently, the word that has been thrown around a lot in relation to sustainable products is “circular economy”. Now, I don’t know about you, but that shit sounds complicated and like something I probably wouldn’t understand, even if it was explained to me. However, since talking about becoming more eco-friendly is literally what I do online, I forced myself to put the research time in to understand what the hell “circular economy” means and why it’s apparently what we should be aiming for if we want to create a a sustainable society.

 

As it turns out, the whole thing really ain’t that hard to understand. In fact, I suspect that a lot of you, like me, already inherently understand that a circular economy is what is best for our planet, even if you wouldn’t use the term.

Throughout this blog post I’m going to explain three types of economy to help make things a lot clearer: Linear economy, reuse economy and, of course, good ol’ circular economy. Each of these describe the different ways that we handle our use of materials within the designing, manufacturing and disposal of products and packaging.

But stick with me, I promise it’s not a total snooze fest and is actually pretty important.

What is linear economy?

A linear economy was where we were at in the UK, say, 20 years ago.

It essentially means that the manufacture and disposal of products happens in a straight line: A business creates a product, the customer uses the product, the product is thrown away and remains in landfill.

It looks something like this:

Diagram: What is linear economy?

This sort of economy is what many people would think of as the traditional form of capitalism. It means that all materials used in the creation of products for the consumer are disposed of relatively quickly.  Therefore, in terms of sustainability, it is quite clearly the worst option. Hence the move towards reuse economy in more recent years.

What is reuse economy?

A reuse economy is a big improvement on a linear economy, although it still certainly isn’t ideal. Most people would argue that this is where we currently stand here in the UK for the most part.

It’s where old products are used to make new products through processes like recycling. So, a product is made, the product is used by the consumer, the product is disposed of responsibly and whatever materials can be made into something else, are. However, raw materials still go to landfill: Not everything is recyclable. Waste is still produced. A lot of it, actually.

It looks like this:

Diagram: What is reuse economy?

 

What is circular economy?

The best of the bunch, a circular economy is a system that creates products that are regenerative by design. As in, very little goes to landfill.

Aka the dream.

It is based on the “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” model, as opposed to “Make, Use, Dispose” . This means that raw materials used in production are minimised as much as possible, products are used and reused for as long as possible and, at the end of their lifespan, they are reintroduced into the production cycle and the materials are used to make something else.

One industry’s waste product, becomes the raw material of another industry. But only when as much use has been got out of it as physically possible

It looks like this:

A diagram explaining what is circular economy

 

Within the economy, there are two cycles: Technical and Biological.

Biological cycles are those that already happen within nature. In the natural world, everything gets reused, from food and organic waste, to water. Within a circular economy, using raw materials such as wood, cotton or bamboo (and not messing with them!) means that they will “feed” back into our eco-system through composting and anaerobic digestion.

All of this type of waste isn’t wasted as it adds value elsewhere.

Technical cycles are those that require a bit more human intervention, because non-biodegradable waste is a problem that we caused in the first place! That basically means that materials like metals or plastic will need to be transformed by us – either physically or chemically – to be recycled into something new. So, a raw material is used beyond the lifespan of one single product.

To reiterate, both of these changes still only happen when the initial product has been used and reused as much as physically possible first.

3 examples of circular economies in action

LoopYou’ve probably heard about Loop in the news recently. And for bloody good reason! It’s a company that is launching in the US in the near future, which described itself as a “circular delivery system”. They offer well known brands, from Crest mouthwash to Hägen Dazs ice cream and Sure deodorant, in completely reusable packaging. The items are delivered to your front door in a 100% reusable tote bag (with no waste such as icepacks or protective wraps) and the products themselves come in containers made of materials like glass and stainless steel.

When you have finished a product, you return the packaging back to Loop in your tote bag, where the containers are washed out and re-filled.

Your local milkman: Basically the old-timey version of what you read above.

Method: The cleaning brand Method are leaders in the world of green cleaning. Their products use raw materials that are infinitely recyclable, their factories use renewable energy and they are even cradle-to-cradle certified. Method also run the “Ocean Plastic Bottle” project which uses plastic found in the sea to create their packaging.

What is needed to create a circular economy?

1. High quality products: Products, as a bare minimum, need to not be created to break (Apple, I’m looking at you). Instead, they must be made to last for as long as possible so that the raw materials used are being put to good use.

2. Products that are repairable: If products do break, the option to repair them needs to be easier than the option to replace them.

3. Packaging and products need to be reusable: And not just carrier bags.

4. The use of biodegradable packaging and raw materials must become more popular: We need to make a shift towards using more natural materials that are grown and harvested in a sustainable and ethical way.

5. When natural fibres aren’t used, recyclable ones must be: The complete elimination of non-recyclable materials is a must for a successful circular economy.

 

Anyway, I hope that cleared things up for anyone who has seen the term being chucked about online and thought “what the is a circular economy?”.

As you can see, circular economies are by no means just theoretical anymore. Changes are happening and it is super exciting! Maybe one day in the distant future – when Trump is no longer president and Brexit isn’t at the forefront of everything here in the UK – we’ll be able to implement its principles into our economic system in totality.

For now though, I’m just happy to see some companies making the shift.

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