The circular economy, in five minutes

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).

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 it’s 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).

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 then 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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