Circular economy model

How the circular economy can make zero waste a reality

The circular economy, the short version

The circular economy is an emerging economic model based on recycling and repairing. It's core purpose is to minimize or eliminate waste and natural resource extraction in order to protect the environment and make our economies more efficient.

In a linear economy, goods are made, used, and then thrown away. In the circular economy, goods and materials are designed into smaller and smaller loops, where they are used over and over. For example, we could develop systems where beverage bottles are continuously sent back to the initial bottler to be washed and re-used.

The circular economy, the longer version

Modern society creates an incredible amount of what we deem “waste.” This waste ultimately gets sent off to a landfill; burnt off as pollution; or dumped into our rivers, streams, and oceans. The United States alone generates more than 250 million tons of municipal solid waste every year. And we are quickly running out of landfill space to dump it all.

All this waste is a direct result of our linear economic model. In the linear economy, resources are extracted, converted into products, which are then disposed of when they are done. Resources are used just once and then tossed out.

All Around Plastics (2018). https://www.allaroundplastics.com/en/article/sustainability-en/1919

The circular economy changes all that. Instead of a straight, one-way, line from extraction to disposal, the circular economy bends the line back. So when before used goods would be disposed of, we now find ways to turn them back into useful ingredients or components. At its core, the circular economy refuses to characterize anything as “waste.” Wherever we can, the circular economy strives to see how what we in the past deemed as “waste” is actually a highly valuable commodity. We can put these vital used resources back to use and over and over again.

All Around Plastics. (2018). https://www.allaroundplastics.com/en/article/sustainability-en/1919

Ideally, in the circular economy, we create tighter and tighter loops, continuously improving the efficiency of all these processes. For example, simply throwing away a glass bottle is the worst option. We'd much rather take that glass, melt it down, and then reform it into usable bottles or other glass products. But even better – and tighter – would be to take those bottles, wash them out, and reuse them again for the same product. This tighter loop uses less energy breaking the bottles down, re-crafting them, shipping them, etc.

Or another example: taking an old computer and allowing its parts to be used for new machines is a huge improvement over simply throwing it away. But repairing the computer, so that it can be used in its original form is the tightest circle possible. By repairing our goods rather than replacing them, we avoid the disposal or recycle stage for as long as possible.

The circular economy, in practice

Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, an innovative company that recycles hard-to-recycle waste. TerraCycle – based in Trenton, New Jersey – offers a range of free programs and recycling solutions for almost every form of waste. TerraCycle is developing a platform with some of the world's biggest consumer products companies to collects  and re-use product containers.

Embed from Getty Images

Szaky believes the best way to help advance the circular economy is to vote with our dollars, choosing products that feature less packaging and result in less waste. This might include:

  1. Avoiding prepackaged produce, instead storing them in your own bags
  2. Choosing aluminum cans over plastic bottles. Aluminum cans are much more efficient to recycle!
  3. Seeking to repair old appliances and technologies before replacing them altogether

What are some of the best ways you've found to minimize waste, use your material possessions for as long as possible, and convert “waste” back into usable supplies?

Recommended reading

The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows

by Ken Webster

A circular economy has profound consequences for production, employment, education, money and finance but also induces a shift in public policy and taxation. The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows gives a stimulating overview of this emerging framework.

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2 thoughts on “How the circular economy can make zero waste a reality”

  1. C’est vraiment une bonne idée de votre part de recycler déchets j aimerait être aussi parmi vous pour y participer aussi

  2. Subject: Partnership, Funding and Grants Inquiry in Ethiopia

    Dear Sirs/Madam,

    Greetings
    ,
    The Organization for Poverty Alleviation & Development-OPAD
    Is A Swedish International Non-governmental Organization [INGO] operating in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa with an aim to stimulate community Oriented Poverty Alleviation initiatives that improve Sustainable Development; promote Democratic Governance, Human Rights, and Climate Change mitigation. The organization strives for inclusivity of poor people in Community Engagement Strategies, Public policy formulation and Research.
    OPAD has a Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council since 2016. OPAD Promotes and practices bottom-up approach in all its development interventions which requires accurate information, data and facts on any given challenge that needs result oriented response. OPAD is one of the implementers of Beneficiaries Led Aid [BLA] in Poverty Alleviation Programmes, Climate change Mitigation, relief, conflict resolution and Human Health in our strategic countries of operations.
    OPAD is set up under the European, AU and UN Laws governing non-profit corporations. The organization is registered under the European and Swedish law. Its Main Office headquarters is based at Odens Vag 17, 14571 Norsborg, Nybohovebacken 23-25,11673 Stockholm and Its identification number of Global office is 802445- 2297 and its Employer Identification number is SE01802445-2297. OPAD Regional offices are set and managed with indigenous community women, men and youths as staffs and volunteers in order to build synergy among grassroots development partners and Collaborators.
    OPAD is the founder of World Climate Civility Day (WCCD) in partnership with the UN, NGO’s and organizations worldwide to call attention to the need to address the Earth’s changing climate. WCCD will address how to mitigate the extreme weather patterns brought on by careless excesses that have brought the greenhouse effect, using civility as the platform for the opening of the discussion.

    OPAD Vision: Equitable Society free from Human Suffering.
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    “Be a global citizen. Act with passion and compassion. Help us make this world safer and more sustainable today and for the generations that will follow us. That is our moral responsibility. ” Ban Ki-moon

    We look forward to working with you!
    Regards,
    Mesay Tadese
    OPAD Head of Countries Director: Ethiopia, South Sudan and North Sudan
    The Organization for Poverty Alleviation and Development (OPAD)
    Email: mesay@opad.eu
    Mobile +251 (0) 93229152
    Skype: mesay.tadese
    https://www.opad.eu

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