99% of consumer products are disposed of within six months of purchase, with little to no recovery of the materials. This is evidence of the “take, make, dispose” model, in which raw materials are continuously taken from the earth to make products that will be discarded. Known as a linear economy, this model relies on an infinite pool of resources and generates massive quantities of waste. A system called the circular economy (CE) has been created in recent years as a sustainable replacement for the linear economy. In essence, the CE is meant to separate economic activity from the consumption of resources. Resources would be circulated by removing materials from used products rather than wasting them. There are two cycles of resource flow as described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: the first is the technical cycle, in which products are reused, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled, and the second is the biological cycle, in which biodegradable materials are returned to the earth. Eventually, filtering products through these cycles would eliminate waste and pollution. The cyclical resource flow of the CE emulates natural systems and would allow nature to regenerate, as materials for new products are found in old ones and land is no longer needed to mine for raw resources.
Although the CE could have profound positive impacts on the environment, implementing the system would be complicated and not without its challenges. Businesses would need to fundamentally alter their supply chain and merchandise, designing products for “cradle to cradle” use rather than cradle to grave; in other words, manufacturers would need to consider the product’s end-of-life and ensure it could be reused, repaired, remanufactured, or recycled. Critics of the CE argue that the system is still too theoretical for practical application and say methods need to be developed to specifically quantify the sustainability impacts of particular CE strategies. However, there are a wide variety of viable business models already operating within the parameters of the CE. One study demonstrated that shifting to a CE would add 700,000 jobs in central and eastern Europe, while another concluded that CE business models would lead to four times more jobs than currently exist in waste treatment, recycling, and disposal.
Although recycling, renewable energy, and other methods currently in use to combat climate change are important and necessary, they aren’t the whole answer. Recycling cannot compensate for the sheer amount of waste produced by the linear economy, and still produces carbon emissions. Renewable energy will only solve 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Implementing the circular economy in addition to recycling, renewable energy, and other approaches would help solve our environmental crisis. Producers and consumers will both be required to change current practices to see system-wide change.
This blog post is a brief overview of a complex subject. For further resources, there are many videos available on YouTube that explain the circular economy and how it could be implemented, such asthis video from CNBC andthis video from Sustainability Illustrated. Other great tools include the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website and materials likethis video, which is part of their Circular Economy Show. Finally, for a more detailed explanation of the critiques surrounding the implementation of CE and how those critiques can be addressed, seethis article.
Anne Velenturf Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy, & Phil Purnell Professor of Materials and Structures. (2022, May 16). What a sustainable circular economy would look like. The Conversation. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/what-a-sustainable-circular-economy-would-look-like-133808
Santander. (2021, September 17). Linear and circular economies: What are they and what's the difference? Santander Corporate Website. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.santander.com/en/stories/linear-and-circular-economies-what-are-they-and-whats-the-difference
Circular economy introduction. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview
Circulate products and materials. Circular economy principle. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circulate-products-and-materials
Eliminate waste and pollution. Circular economy principles. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/eliminate-waste-and-pollution
Regenerate nature. Circular economy principles. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/regenerate-nature
Florian Lüdeke-Freund Professor for Corporate Sustainability. (2022, February 10). The Circular Economy: Four million business models and counting. The Conversation. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/the-circular-economy-four-million-business-models-and-counting-115664
Walzberg, J., Lonca, G., Hanes, R. J., Eberle, A. L., Carpenter, A., & Heath, G. A. (1AD, January 1). Do we need a new sustainability assessment method for the circular economy? A critical literature review. Frontiers. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsus.2020.620047/full/
Impacts of circular economy policies on the labour market. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/enveco/circular_economy/pdf/studies/Impacts%20of%20Circular%20Economy%20-%20FinalReport_V2_clean.pdf
Green Alliance. (2022, January 18). Building a circular economy: How a new approach to infrastructure can put an end to waste " green alliance. Green Alliance. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://green-alliance.org.uk/publication/building-a-circular-economy/
CNBCInternational. (2018, January 18). What is the circular economy? | CNBC explains. YouTube. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__0Spwj8DkM
learnsustainability. (2020, February 17). Circular economy: Definition & examples | sustainability environment. YouTube. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6HDcubgxRk
made2bemadeagain. (2020, September 15). Explaining circular economy: Best real-life examples | The circular economy show episode 11. YouTube. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yvsps9DHVcw
Institute, B. (2021, August 3). A circular economy does not necessarily translate to sustainability. Forbes. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/thebakersinstitute/2021/08/03/a-circular-economy-does-not-necessarily-translate-to-sustainability/?sh=18a9a20261a7