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The linear economy is failing us in a big way. The “take, make, dispose” model has resulted in inefficient use of our natural resources, a culture of consumerism and a predisposition towards waste. On a planet with finite resources, this has to change.
There is a growing global movement aimed at transforming this linear model to a circular economy, but what does this really mean? How do we take that linear model and turn it on its head?
Defining the circular economy
Looking beyond the linear take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, the primary aim of a circular economy is to redefine what is meant by growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits rather than narrower and purely economic metrics.
Essentially, a circular economy requires us to completely rethink what we understand as progress and, in the process, redesign our economic model. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.
There are three primary principles associated with this transition to a circular economy according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
Design out waste and pollution
Keep products and materials in use
Regenerate natural systems
Only by integrating all three in a concerted approach can a fully circular economy be achieved.
Graphic by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Designing out waste and pollution
For too long our linear economic model has caused our waste management approaches to focus on end-of-life scenarios. A product reaches its use-by date or is replaced by a newer model and we are left asking how to dispose of the resultant “waste”. But what if instead of building our products to reach obsolescence, we constructed them so the resources and materials used could be recovered and returned to the material cycle?
The first principle of the circular economy is about understanding that waste and pollution are largely a result of the way we design things and finding new and innovative ways to design out those negative impacts. Around 80 per cent of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage, meaning transitioning this area towards greater circularity can have amplified impacts throughout material cycles. By changing our mindset to view waste as a design flaw and harnessing new materials and technologies, we can ensure that waste and pollution are not created in the first place.
A prominent example of this kind of circular thinking can be seen in the turn towards reusable alternatives to single-use items such as coffee cups, water bottles and plastic straws and cutlery. By designing easily transportable, reusable alternatives we reduce our reliance on single-use products, a huge contributor to waste in a linear economy.
Keeping products and materials in use
The second principle of a circular economy is based on a simple premise: we can’t keep wasting resources. On a planet with finite resources the products and materials we construct from those we extract must be kept in the economy for as long as possible. We can design some products and components so they can be reused, repaired, and remanufactured.
But making things last longer is only part of the solution, we also need to be able to get the resources used to create them back in the system so they don’t end up in landfill. This is particularly pertinent for materials and resources with short lifespans such as food and packaging, which can cause huge amounts of waste without appropriate resource recovery processes.
Australia is no stranger to resource recovery, with recycling rates increasing from just 7 per cent of all waste in 1996 to 58 per cent in 2016/17. That still leaves around 40 per cent of all waste materials being disposed to landfill, that’s equivalent to 21.7 megatonnes (millions of tonnes) of waste in 2016/17 according to the latest National Waste Report. To reduce this, we need to ensure we have appropriate collection systems for our various waste streams.
One example of this can be seen in container deposit schemes, an example of product stewardship legislation where the beverage industry is obliged to take greater responsibility for its packaging after it has been sold. Beverage suppliers must ensure that a system is in place for the recovery and recycling of their empty containers.
Regenerating natural systems
Perhaps the most transformative principle of a circular economy is in its emphasis on providing feedback loops that actively improve our natural environment. In the linear economy, environmentalism is predicated on trying to do less harm. Whilst this is an important guideline to follow in and of itself, the circular economy takes this to the logical next step by aiming to do good for the environment.
In nature, there is no concept of waste; everything is cyclical. All the great natural cycles – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water etc. – work in closed loops with little to no loss of resources through their cycle. The circular economy aims to mimic these natural cycles, creating an economic model that protects, supports and actively improves our environment.
This is particularly applicable to organic materials, which for too long in our linear economy have been treated as waste and disposed to landfill. This not only wastes the water and energy used to make the products in the first place but can also create negative environmental impacts as organic materials break down. When organic matter begins to rot in anaerobic environments like landfill, methane (a greenhouse gas with a warming effect around 25x stronger than carbon dioxide) is produced as a by-product. By returning valuable nutrients to the soil and other ecosystems instead of sending it to landfill, we can enhance our natural resources.
A rapidly growing movement exemplifying this principle is that of regenerative agriculture, which involves farming principles and practices that have positive impacts on the surrounding environment. This can involve projects such as increasing biodiversity levels, enriching soils, improving watersheds or enhancing ecosystem services, but ultimately, it’s about doing good for the world around us.