Everything You Need to Know about the Circular Economy
What is the circular economy?
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption where resources do not go to waste after their first use, but either re-enter the market or help regenerate natural ecosystems.
Its key principles are:
- Improving product design to either reduce or eliminate waste
- Keeping products and resources in use for as long as possible
- Regenerating natural systems
Who came up with it and why does it matter?
The circular economy could be the way forward. As early as the 1960s, economists such as Kenneth E. Boulding started to wonder how we could conserve resources rather than extracting them over and over, and still create a thriving economy. Today, the concept of circularity stimulates various schools of thought. Architect William McDonough has designed eco-friendly buildings and advocated for a product and material design that maximizes lifespan, leaving room for improvement rather than discard. Meanwhile, Janine Buyes points out that in nature, there is no such thing as waste. Everything grows, dies, and decomposes to generate something new – the circle of life. Why can’t our economy do the same?
- Excessive resource extraction and processing are responsible for 50% of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress. The circular economy can halt this process by reducing the need to extract new resources.
- Each year we produce 2 trillions of waste, including 381 million tons of plastic. Only 8% of waste is recycled.
- It is estimated that in the EU, the Circular Economy will create 700,000 jobs and a net economic benefit of €1.8 trillion by 2030.
Let’s make room for the experts…
Kate Rawforth is a (badass) economist with senior advisory roles at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the World Health Organization. She explains why we should shift away from growth-oriented economic models, and towards regenerative alternatives such as the circular economy.
Circular economy in action
What does this look like in practice? Each time you choose to reduce waste, share or reuse you are taking part in the circular economy.
MacArthur is a former sailing champion from the United Kingdom. Not only did she circumnavigate the globe on a sailing yacht, alone, she broke the world record for the speed of her expedition. After her retirement in 2010, she launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with the aim to accelerate the transition to circular economy. The charity is involved in countless business, innovation and education projects. If you’re curious about this topic and worldwide initiatives, their website is the first place to look. Ellen also has an asteroid named after her – like the star she is.
We’re in the golden era of greenwashing, but Patagonia is the real deal. Its founder Yves Chouinard is a passionate rock climber and environmentalist, and he conceptualized his company as a space for environmental activism as well as business. In the mid-1980s, healthy vegetarian food hit their cafeterias, 10% of profits were committed to eco-activism, and employees were paid to work on external environmental projects. Today, the outdoor wear brand makes extensive use of recycled materials for their products, and encourages customers to buy used gear on their WornWear platform. Proving that circularity can and should be incorporated in successful product design.
Where can I learn more?
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
A seminal work on the topic. This book will teach you how to create products with a good, long lifespan, at the end of which they can reenter natural ecosystems to regenerate rather than pollute. Remember: “Waste equals food.”
Zero Waste Home by Béa Johnson
In its purest form, circularity is a radical reshaping of our economic systems. But on a more manageable, individual scale, zero waste living is a great way to apply its principles to minimize our carbon footprint. Johnson is a French-born mother of two living in the United States, but she is famous worldwide as a zero-waste guru. Her book contains practical tips towards a waste-free dream home – Johnson’s household only produces one liter of rubbish per year!
Join the conversation!
Some of the people mentioned here are avid tweeters, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; their Twitter account is aptly named @circulareconomy.
Another pioneer of this field: Gunter Pauli, who theorized @MyBlueEconomy.
To learn more about how circularity, business and tech innovation intertwine, check out @rachelbotsman.
Instagram & TikTok
On the other hand, Insta and TikTok feature plenty of zero-waste influencers ready to teach you how to incorporate circularity in your everyday life: you can check out @trashisfortossers and @queerbrownvegan on Instagram, and @newlifestyle, @bottegazerowaste or @ecoamical on TikTok.
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