Circular economies are setting out to reform the way humans have lived for the last two centuries. The idea of reduce, reuse, and recycle has been ingrained into society for many years now. It is becoming the driving force of a more sustainable future. This simple concept of reducing one’s waste is the notion that the concept that a ‘circular economy’ is based on.
The Economy and its current system
In recent decades sustainability has become a regular topic of discussion. However, the current economy functions on a linear model where most items end up in the garbage instead of being up-cycled or reused. Sustainability is not a highly considered concept in the current functioning and environment of the system. This is having detrimental effects on the planet’s natural and available resources. Society’s careless attitude is causing all resources to deplete at alarming rates. Inputs are becoming increasingly limited while outputs have become increasingly harmful to natural ecosystems. The circular economy aims to remove the negative impacts of the economic activity causing damage to human health and natural systems. Another feature of circular economies is their intention to avoid the use of non-renewable resources and instead preserve and enhance renewable ones.
The current state of the planet has caused a much-needed push away from an “economic model that is organized around gross throughput of material and energy in a linear fashion to a new kind of circular economy that shifts the focus to the internal organization of processes within which resources are used. The main aim is the optimization of overall service delivery rather than the gross throughput of products” (Systems Innovation, 2019). A circular economy is based around closing loops so as to create self-sustaining systems where producers and consumers are closely linked, with constant flowing feedback. Systems are analyzed and monitored to ascertain where upgrades or improvements can be made. These checks are done to ensure maximum system efficiency in order to reduce loss so as to create an entirely circular economy.
The potential of a Circular Economy
In a circular economy, waste products are constantly being repurposed to serve new functions. This is known as a regenerative approach. Achieving a circular economy requires diversity and the interconnection of different, individual systems, as figure 1 shows. Many industries are necessary for a circular economy to function effectively. Through the interconnection of different systems, one can harness their diversity to create synergies between them. Circular economies shift the focus from individual items to the synergies between products, enabling integration, and allowing for feedback systems to become established. Circular economies are not aimed at ending growth, rather they emphasize growth and adjustment towards harmony with nature throughout the cycle by reducing ‘single-use’ wastage.
Through circular economies, items that initially served a single purpose can become far more significant. For example, a building initially only serving as offices can become multi-functional, becoming an energy and food producer, and where possible, also incorporating a green area on the rooftop. Through integrated systems like this, more resilience is created since products and utilities become more self-sufficient and independent.
The circular economy is beneficial to both businesses and consumers. Companies that have adopted the notion of reusing resources have proven that it is “more cost-effective than creating them from scratch” (Active Sustainability, 2019). Through this, production prices are less and thus sales prices are lowered, benefiting the consumer.
In Denmark, the trash silo dubbed Copenhill “uses the latest technology to convert 534,600 tons of waste a year into energy and electricity to 30,000 homes and heat 72,000. The plant doubles as a recreational destination, with an all-season ski slope, a tree-lined hiking and running trail, and a 280-feet climbing wall, the world’s tallest” (Kunzig, 2020).
Developments around Circular Economies
The concept of a circular economy is about changing the entire organization and functioning of a system. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes “the circular economy isn’t about one manufacturer changing one product, it is about all of the interconnected companies that form our infrastructure and economy coming together… it’s about rethinking the operating system itself” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). In March this year the European Commission adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the pillars of the European Green Deal, which lays out the agenda of sustainable growth in Europe. This new Plan comes after the successful delivery and implementation of the first Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. The circular economy could save European businesses up to $630 billion a year (Kunzig, 2020). Billions are being invested into the strategy, with countries such as the Netherlands pledging to be fully-circular by 2050.
For circular economies to become the new norm of current economies, every person, industry, and country needs to commit to making the change for a better and greener future. The need for change is pressing. Each year over 100 billion tons of raw material is used to transform into products. Of that amount, less than a quarter becomes a long-lasting product- cars, buildings, or machinery. A frightening 10 percent only is reintroduced into the economy for reuse. This current system is causing billions of unnecessary expenditures while effecting healthcare systems, resource availability, and increasing waste levels. The circular economy aims to increase the percentage of waste re-entering the system thus reducing overall waste.
The foundations for the circular economy are in place and institutions and individuals are aware of the need to move forward in its direction. A key problem with a move towards a circular economy is the paradigm shift necessary to be implemented for the concept to gain traction and become the ‘new normal’ for industries and societies alike. This shift could potentially initiate a fifth industrial revolution.
- Active Sustainability (2019) ‘What is Circular Economy?’ Available at: https://www.activesustainability.com/sustainable-development/what-is-circular-economy/.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019a) ‘Functioning of a Circular Economy’. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/images/Deep-Dives/CEinDetail-ButterflyDiagram-2000px.png.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019b) ‘Why it’s time to invest in the circular economy’. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/why-its-time-to-invest-in-the-circular-economy/id1116732609?i=1000460287398.
- Kalundborg Symbiosis (2020) Kalundborg Symbiosis. Available at: http://www.symbiosis.dk/en/.
- Kunzig, R. (2020) ‘The End of Trash’, National Geographic, March, pp. 42–71.
- Systems Innovation (2019) Circular Economy Explained. Available at: https://systemsinnovation.io/circular-economy-explained/