Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Previously, we discussed the basics of implementing a circular economic system. In this post we are going to be diving a bit deeper into the origins of circular economy concepts, the philosophy behind it, and how this differs from a linear economy.
There are a few essential scholars who have forged the way for circular economic thought coming from various academic disciplines including chemistry, architecture, and economics. Additionally, the principles of circular economy are the product of the convergence of several key schools of thought, all of which appreciate the cycles of nature we depend on: systems theory, industrial ecology, and ecological economics, etc. The diverse roots of circular economic thought have translated into diverse applications, all sharing the same goal: “close the loop.”
The circular economy places an emphasis on environmental sustainability, making it an appealing ideal as we explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. Its concepts attempt to mimic or integrate our current systems of production into organic cycles as much as possible. For example, there are a number of cycles that describe how matter, nutrients, and energy contribute to stable environments, such as the carbon cycle.
The amount of carbon that currently exists on Earth remains constant, as it cannot be newly created. Carbon continuously flows between reservoirs like rock, oceans, the atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels. As carbon moves through these reservoirs it is used and continuously reused, there is no waste.
Unlike the circular economy, the linear economy does not mimic these cycles. Under the linear system, products that could be recycled are disposed of or are designed in ways that make them non-reusable. Plastics and food waste are examples that demonstrate the costly consequences of a linear economy. Plastic is newly created using oil and gas,which are non-renewable resources. Once it is used, plastic is usually disposed of and never reused.
Generally, plastic ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or finds its way into our environments.
Each year, nearly 8 million tons of additional plastic seeps into the ocean, and is said to cost the world 2.5 trillion dollars per year. Additionally, recycling plastic can be difficult and costly, causing manufacturers to create cheaper plastics that rely on the extraction of additional oil and gas. Comparatively, food waste has the potential of a renewed life if disposed of properly through composting, preventing it from also ending up in landfills.
According to the EPA, 63.1 million tons of food waste is disposed of each year in the US. Once in landfills, food waste is unable to decompose properly and produces methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Methane accumulation contributes to landfill fires that occur due to spontaneous combustions and can cost millions of dollars to extinguish. When plastic and food waste are produced within a linear economic framework, they not only contribute to environmental degradation but are expensive. However, this also provides excellent opportunities for businesses, governments, and individuals to apply circular economy principles.
Stay tuned for the next installment of The Circular Economy Series where we discuss the ways in which businesses can incorporate circular economic principles and highlight a few exemplar businesses that are making waves in the circular economy spaces!