How does the circular economy work?
Circular economy is a method of systems design that offers much needed change. As it is more a mindset or a way of setting up a system, and not a specific technology or thing, the concept is often used in many different contexts. Circular economy can be defined as a regenerative system, where we redefine what growth is, making sure we build economies that have positive effects on natural, social as well as economic capital. The circular economy is based on three principles:
- Design products to avoid waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
One simple way to understand the concept is to think of our economies – our systems of what we buy, eat and wear – in the analogy of a tree. A tree uses sunlight, nutrients and water from the soil, and carbon dioxide to make green leaves and produce oxygen. When fall comes, these leaves fall to the ground. After winter, the nutrients from the leaves are absorbed back into the soil, useful for either that one tree, or even the tree next to it. And so it continues in never-ending cycles, where everything has a purpose and nothing goes to waste. Simply put, these natural processes are what the circular economy aims to emulate.
An important element of circular economy is the idea of “design for recycling”. Recycling can refer to various processes, but the main thing is that materials and products have many lifecycles because they are designed in a way that maintains value and quality. If you were a bottle producer about to make a new bottle, you would ask yourself: how can I make this bottle so that it can be recycled after it is empty, and has the highest possible value for the bottle producer and recyclers?
A recent study highlights the importance of recycling not just for material purposes, but also for reduction in emissions associated with production. Looking at plastic materials in particular, one metric ton of recycled plastic feedstock on average offsets greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.9 tons CO2. Also, reuse models, recycling, and true circular economy for materials (unlike landfill and incineration) generate revenue and green jobs. Recycling is one of the key means to a circular economy, ensuring material is not lost and reducing environmental costs of consumption.