A circular economy is an economic model that is gaining popularity for its potential to reduce waste by providing businesses with a new framework for sustainable production and manufacturing. The circular economy could be the new way of thinking needed to reverse the damaging effects of climate change.
Without significant efforts to fight climate change, up to 132 million people could be forced into extreme poverty by 2030, according to a study by the World Bank. Studies like this make it abundantly clear that climate change is no longer a problem only for future generations. Yet, the world continues to produce more and more waste each year.
The EPA reports that just in 2018, 292.4 million tons of waste was created worldwide, and 50% of that went straight to landfills. The creation of so much waste ensures that the extraction of virgin resources continues at the expense of our planet’s health.
Under a traditional linear economy, resources are extracted to make a product. Once that product’s lifecycle is over, it’s discarded as waste. In contrast, a circular economy provides a more sustainable economic model in which the flow of resources forms a loop instead of a line.
In a circular economy, the value of resources is maximized through sustainable design, repair, reuse, renewable resources, composting, and recycling. Ideally, nothing is wasted, and the products of one industry form the resources for another or the same industry, replacing the extraction of new resources.
Right now, sustainable designs that reduce waste are all too often treated as an afterthought. Businesses design products to be produced and sold for the greatest profit, only choosing to use sustainable materials when they don’t negatively impact their bottom line.
This kind of thinking leads plastic companies to continue using virgin plastics instead of recycled plastics. Despite the environmental impact of creating virgin plastics, it remains cheaper for businesses to produce than recycled plastics or alternative materials.
A successful transition to a fully circular economy will require a significant change in thinking for businesses and consumers alike. Instead of defining success by last quarter’s profits alone, companies will need to make choices based on environmental impact and the prosperity of current and future generations. Consumers will need to demand and support those choices by shifting their focus to functional value, buying products that last, and repairing them when they wear out.
Reducing Waste Through Sustainable Design
One of the biggest challenges of moving to a more sustainable economic model is the difficulty of recovering materials and reducing waste. Under the current economic model, even when products are made with valuable materials, it can be challenging for businesses to recover them without becoming less competitive.
Today, many products are made with a mix of materials and need to be disassembled before recycling. Separating and sorting these materials can be energy-intensive, expensive, and dangerous to workers’ health.
We can see these challenges in the growing electric vehicle industry, which I recently wrote about in an article discussing lithium-ion battery recycling. Businesses struggle to recycle lithium-ion car batteries despite the environmental impact and financial incentives of doing so. These batteries are meant to safely withstand a car accident, making them extremely difficult to disassemble. Lithium-ion batteries can even be flammable if they are cut into at the wrong place, yet every manufacturer uses a different design, often not releasing details.
Organizations like the Global Battery Alliance work with electric vehicle manufacturers to create sustainable designs for batteries that can be easily disassembled for recycling while remaining safe in a crash. If successful, these efforts could drastically reduce the environmental impact of creating the millions of batteries needed as electric vehicles rapidly replace cars with combustion engines.
Similar challenges with recycling exist in many industries, which is why sustainable design is vital to constructing a circular economy. By designing products that address the challenges of recycling and material recovery, we can reduce waste and the need to extract new resources continually.
Sustainable Businesses in a Circular Economy
Recycling will undoubtedly be crucial for creating a sustainable circular economy, but it is just one part of this new economic model. The key to a circular economy is maximizing resources, which includes keeping products in use for as long as possible before recycling them.
Recycling generally has a much smaller environmental impact than extracting virgin resources, but it can still be very energy-intensive. Using renewable resources for energy can reduce the environmental impact of recycling. But until that day, and until the planet has switched to using only 100% recyclable materials, we also need to focus on getting as much utility out of our products as possible.
Moving to a circular economy means moving away from unsustainable business models like fast fashion, disposable products, and immediate delivery. Businesses can’t make these changes on their own though. As consumers, we need to change our consumption habits and support companies that reduce waste with business models based on long-lasting products, reuse, repair, and leasing.
That means buying products that last and are designed to be repaired or remanufactured. Buying used from resale stores or leasing products that you won’t use regularly can also keep resources in use that would otherwise be wasted or go through an energy-intensive recycling process. According to a UK report by the Green Alliance, supporting these kinds of circular business models has the potential to create 450,000 new jobs in the country by 2035.
In addition to supporting these business models to reduce inorganic waste, consumers can create a more circular flow of biological resources by taking advantage of composting. According to The World Counts, the world creates 1.3 billion tons of food waste each year. That’s 1/3 of all the food produced for human consumption.
When that food ends up in landfills instead of being composted, it creates methane which can trap 25 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Consumers can help to reduce this environmental impact by composting at home and donating unused food to local organizations like food banks.
Businesses can also use the Earth’s natural processes to ensure their products don’t end up as waste in a landfill. Composting and biodegradable materials provide another chance for businesses to use sustainable design to reduce waste. By exploring alternative organic materials as replacements for polluting materials like plastic, companies can create cleaner products converted into biodegradable nutrients instead of waste.
Rethinking our Economic Model
Linear economies have only been able to function up to this point because the Earth and future generations have paid for a portion of the cost of every product we make. Manufacturers have consistently made products in unsustainable ways that create waste because it saves money for businesses and consumers.
But this economic model is only profitable because we continue to ignore the true environmental cost of our consumption. It is only cheaper for manufacturers to produce a water bottle out of virgin plastic because its environmental impact is spread out across society and future generations.
Climate change has progressed far beyond the point where small, gradual changes will save us from the consequences of our actions. We need to rethink the way we consume all goods and services, and a circular economy could give us a model for doing just that.