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From the blog

What is the circular economy?

by Maria Basilisco

The circular economy is an alternative approach to the traditional ‘take-make-waste’ linear system that encourages us to rethink the way we make, use and dispose of things.

It is not just about recycling; it is about ensuring that everything we design is created without waste at any stage in the product’s life cycle. We must think carefully about how to make use of materials as much as we can before they reach their end of life.

A circular economy is fundamentally different to the current linear system where we process raw materials into a product that is thrown away once it has been used. In fact, a circular system takes inspiration from natural biological systems. Within nature, when an animal or plant dies and creates waste, this waste breaks down, producing nutrients for another process. To replicate this natural process, we must not only reduce waste but also make use of non-toxic, biodegradable materials that do not harm the environment and that allows for nutrient cycling.

In 2019, 45,859,000 tonnes of waste was sent to landfills in England according to the Environment Agency. Not only is this an unacceptable waste of resources, but the level of contamination to the surrounding ecosystem is also extremely damaging. By following a circular system (minimising waste and increasing resource efficiency), we can aim to tackle the key environmental, social, and economic challenges associated with pollution of the atmosphere, biosphere, and climate change.

 

The Circular Economy is based on 3 main principles.

  1. Design out waste and pollution
  2. Keep products and materials in use
  3. Regenerate natural systems

Though the concept of reducing, reusing, and recycling still prevails, the key focus is on the first principle which is to design out waste. When a product is being designed, its entire lifecycle and end of life should be carefully considered beforehand so that when we finish with it, the materials used to make it can be reused multiple times over.

Keeping products and materials in use is, therefore, the second most important principle. Though we have an intrinsic need to buy new items, we must rethink the way we buy things, what we buy and how often.

Finally, we need to consider where the material resources will go when a product reaches the end of its useful life. When we throw something away, where is ‘away’? The final aspect of a circular system must closely consider the natural environment and its vital biological systems that keep everything on our planet in check, including human wellbeing. Everything we make and use will end up back in the environment at some point. So, the products we create must break down into nutrients that can be recycled to regenerate natural systems rather than damage them.

Undoubtedly, the quality and design of most products will inevitably need to be completely reconsidered. By focusing on the first principle, we are reducing the need for excess waste, recycling, and waste management – aspects we are yet to master. Though businesses with circular principles are beginning to emerge, we are still producing waste at an alarming rate, and due to inadequate and ineffective approaches to recovering ‘waste’ materials thus far, we need further innovative solutions and fast.

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Further reading and references:

Circular Economy – nature.com

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) | William McDonough

2019 Waste Data Interrogator – data.gov.uk