An Economy Without Waste: Squaring Up The Circular Economy

Circular economy
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Ever heard of the “circular economy?”  It’s a simple way to understand what a sustainable economy would look like.

What’s a “circular economy?”

  • It’s an economy that’s a closed loop instead of the current, linear, “take-make-toss” industrial economy.
  • It’s much more than recycling, although recycling is an element. Much of today’s recycling is actually “downcycling,” where the resulting materials have less value than originally. In the circular economy, virtually all materials – whether “biological” like food or “technical” like metals – are captured and restored to an equal or higher level of value.
  • It’s an economy without waste. Nothing is thrown “away” because every material – at the end of its current, useful life – becomes an input for something else.

A circular economy recognizes that there is no “away”

The reality is that when things are thrown “away” they end up in;

  1. Oceans, often as blankets of tiny plastic particles or
  2. Landfills that emit greenhouse gases, and often leach toxic substances into the ground or
  3. The air, where greenhouse gases wrap the earth in an ever warmer blanket.

Why you’re gonna love the circular economy

Circular economy

Image courtesy of PLAN C

A circular economy will be different from – and better than – the “linear” economy in a number of ways. Far from having to “do without” or do with less, the companies working towards a circular economy right now foresee:

  • Economic prosperity. “Analysis by McKinsey (the global consulting firm) estimates shifting towards circularity could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs within the next five years.”
  • Abundance, not scarcity. In a circular economy, materials cycle endlessly. There is no running out, because nothing is wasted.
  • A habitable planet. In today’s linear economy, we extract destructively (mining, drilling), manufacture with a lot of energy and pollution, use products (sometimes inefficiently) and then throw things “away.” A circular economy creates products that are designed for reuse, using materials that can be returned to the highest quality, and manufactures cleanly with less energy.
  • New jobs. And not just in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) areas, but in every industry.  The circular economy invites us to re-imagine every aspect of our lives in a circular paradigm. That means a host of new jobs that haven’t even been defined yet.
  • More creative jobs. With machines doing more tasks, jobs in the circular economy will involve more creativity. Designing products for longevity, multiple uses, and easy return – at the end of life – to start the “loop” again makes work a different ballgame. Employees will have more opportunity than ever to reinvent the world – from cars to coffee cups – in new and “circular” ways.

An example of the circular economy: OAT Shoes – “shoes that bloom”

OAT shoes are only available in Europe right now. They are sneakers that are fully biodegradable – quite a technical challenge, it turns out. When they wear out, you can throw them into your garden. There, they break down fully AND sprout wildflowers – because there is a tiny seed packet sewn into each sneaker.

Check out the video of CEO Christiaan Maats’s talk in which he describes the why and how of designing an everyday product that circles from footwear to flowers – easily and completely. You’ll laugh – and think differently about what’s possible.

“Loops” instead of “lines”

Going forward, successful businesses will be  thinking “loops” instead of “lines” when it comes to creating and selling products. That’s the wave of the future.

For more information, check out the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which sponsored McKinsey’s reports titled “Towards the Circular Economy.”

Share your thoughts – we’d love to hear your opinions.

Feature image courtesy of zeronaut.be

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Alison Lueders

Alison Lueders is the Founder and Principal of Great Green Content - a green business certified by both Green America and the Green Business Bureau. She offers copywriting and content marketing services to businesses that are “going green.”Convinced that business can play a powerful and positive role in building a greener, more sustainable economy, she launched Great Green Content in 2011.