What is the Circular Economy?
We live in a 'throw-away' culture. Unfortunately, our economy is based on a model in which items are made in great numbers and at great cost for the people and planet. These things are then consumed or used for a short period of time before being thrown away. Often, the items end up in landfills or polluting our wider environments. When we adopt a circular economy approach, we are removing our support for such damaging systems.
What is a Circular Economy?
In a circular economy, design and manufacture lead to products that are sold to consumers. Yet unlike in our current linear economy, such items are not then simply thrown away at the end of their useful life to become a problem in our waste streams. Instead, they are re-used, repaired and recycled, both within the home and then, when this no longer practicable, externally. The materials of which they are made are returned to the design and manufacturing process, to begin life anew.
Why Adopt a Circular Economy Approach?
A circular economy provides hope that humanity can create a better and more ethical economic system. Considering how goods can be passed through a circular economy can help us to understand which goods are sustainable options – and which are not.
Developing newer, better, recycling models can help us to tackle the huge and mounting waste problem we face. Both in the home and in the wider social and political sphere, the circular economy model can help us to improve resource management, improve resilience in the face of a future shortage, and, of course, reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption.
How Can Individuals Play Their Part in a Circular Economy?
A circular economy can only work with the input and co-operation of every level of our society. Politicians, businesses, individuals and their communities must all play their part.
As individuals, each of us can do our part, first and foremost, by thinking carefully about the things that we buy. We can reduce our overall consumption, buying only items which truly add value to our lives, which were manufactured responsibly and ethically, and which can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful lives.
Next, we can consider how each and every item we own can be reused or repaired, to prolong its useful life for as long as possible. Learning new DIY and practical skills like sewing, woodworking skills, and gardening can help us play our part.
Finally, we must recycle wherever possible, both at home and using local and national recycling schemes. By reducing, reusing and recycling we can all play our roles in a circular economy and move towards a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle.
Above and beyond these things, individuals can also play their part in the move to a circular economy by:
- Playing an active role in our communities and strengthening them from within.
- Supporting sustainable businesses and manufacturing (physically, or with our financial support (by buying their products).)
- Using our voices and our votes - voting for those who will further the goals of sustainability and legislate for a circular economy.
How Can Communities Play Their Part in a Circular Economy?
Communities can be an essential part of a circular economy. A strong community can educate its individuals about sustainability, and empower them to be part of a thriving circular economy. By providing communal recycling facilities, for example, and creating swap shops and common banks of tools and other resources, a community can help individuals within a circular economic model to thrive.
Communities can also create an environment where sustainable business can thrive. They can provide incubators for sustainable businesses, and not only the workforce but also other resources for factories and other elements of supply chains that operate under a circular economy. Energy, freshwater, land, environmental value, and food are amongst the important things that a thriving community can help to provide.
How Can Businesses Play Their Part in a Circular Economy?
Businesses are, of course, central to the creation of a circular economy. If businesses and entrepreneurs are not prepared to make radical changes, then nothing much can change in their arena. There must be a drive to change underpinning all sustainability measures that are undertaken, and this drive will push forwards alterations that can enable a circular business model.
Like individuals and communities, businesses both large and small must also work wherever they can to follow the five 'R's as they work towards their sustainable development goals. In the private sector, there must be an understanding of the need to move away from waste-producing models of production, and towards more sustainable, circular alternatives.
In order to move towards a circular economy, businesses must think about waste reduction (and ideally elimination) at every stage of the life-cycle of their products and services. They should think about:
- Waste and inefficiency at the raw material/ feedstock/ growing stage.
- Waste in the transportation of goods between areas of production/ distribution points and the end consumer.
- Inefficiency and waste in manufacturing/ production stages.
- Any materials or resources wasted/ thrown away during post-processing etc..
Finally, and most crucially, businesses must begin to think about what happens with the things that they make after they have left their hands. Companies tend to think that once they have sold a product the job is done. But they must begin to take the view that what they produce is their responsibility after this point – while it is in use and, notably, when it reaches the end of its useful life.
Businesses in a circular economy should ideally be able to accept back used items to return into the system from which they came. They should ideally have on-site facilities to process and recycle used materials and goods to short-circuit the system. This will help to make sure that nothing goes on to create a waste problem, and fewer new resources are consumed.
What Must Politicians and Law-Makers Do To Promote a Circular Economy?
It is clear that, especially for businesses, moving to a circular economy is not going to be easy or straightforward. Much work must be done to improve infrastructure. It will also be crucial to enhance transparency in supply chains and distribution. Businesses must take some responsibility for these things. But politicians and legislators also have an important role to play.
Moving to a circular economy in all areas of our societies will need to involve authorities and law-makers since they have the power to legislate. Not only can they compel businesses to move to more sustainable models and punish those who pollute our environments and generate waste. They can also incentivize positive measures, and make it easier for businesses which are doing the right thing.
Of course, governments can also aid communities and individuals in their efforts in a range of different ways. By ensuring that communities and individuals can reuse and recycle etc. they can help to make it easier for them, and more likely that they will be able and inclined to do so.
Finally, governments can lead by example, through public procurement and through other measures that show their tangible support for sustainable business and production, and a circular economic model. (For example, public bodies and authorities could choose to purchase uniforms from a company following sustainable procedure and operating in a circular way.)
Our current, wasteful system is entrenched. It will, obviously, be challenging to overcome the hurdles of moving towards a circular economy. But the work, while hard, is well worth doing. If we are to overcome our current crises and move towards a sustainable, resilient future for all, then it is something that we simply must do. By working together at all levels of society, it will be possible. But we need to start yesterday, and the next best time is now.