Ever wondered what happens when you throw something away? Unfortunately, our waste is not always recycled or treated. Our trash in so many cases, goes directly to the landfill and to the ocean affecting the whole planet and interfering in every ecosystem. People, animals and the environment everywhere are exposed to the pollution that comes from our trash. However, there is an economic theory challenging the way we consume and the way we produce in order to reduce our environmental impact. This theory is based on natural observation and, as it is in opposition to our current linear economic model, it is called the circular economy.
Linear Economy: take-make-dispose
Despite of all the advantages that might come from a circular approach, our economic system is based on a linear model. We take resources from the Earth, we make them into products and then we dispose of them. In very limited cases we actually give our goods a second life or use their materials to build something new.
Considering that resources are not unlimited and the principle of mass conservation implies that mass can neither be created nor destroyed but transformed, our production model is not efficient and it is not sustainable in the long term.
For this reason, we are facing for the first time in history a time when we do not have enough raw materials to produce all the goods consumers are demanding. We have the capacity to make tons of products but we do not have enough materials to build them. In this context, it is important to reconsider not only the way companies produce, but also the way we consume. In the last years, we have experienced an even more radical transition to a throw away culture.
This economic model of a linear economy has been working for so long that nowadays it is simply working by inertia. The principal issue is that this system is one of the leading causes of environmental pollution and this model is destroying the planet. Tons of waste are being created on a daily basis through a system which seems to be unchecked.
Circular Economy: consume-return-rethink
A circular economy can be defined as a system in which production, consumption and trade are designed to minimize the use and destruction of key resources. It normally refers to resources such as fossil fuels, raw materials, water, land and other natural commodities. A circular economy tends to reduce pollution growth, along with diminishing environmental and health impacts and providing stability. In a reality where the environment is suffering unprecedented harm due to a highly consumerist society, this alternative economy system might be a solution in the long term.
The best way to explain the circular economy is by understanding it as a parallel between this concept and the cycles of nature. When we look at a tree, the tree takes energy from the sun and grows up producing fruits, apples for example. The apples fall from the tree and a small animal eats these apples. Then a bigger animal eats the small one and when the big animal dies its body lies on the ground and decomposes bringing nutrients back into the soil. The soil then, has the capacity to build another tree. The idea is that all the resources stay in the environment and keep going in a flowing system.
We can observe that this system is efficient and harmonious in the sense that everything has a role in the ´production chain´. Generally speaking, there is no unnecessary waste of materials, energy, efforts or time in natural processes, and for that reason it makes a lot of sense to apply this concept to an economic theory. Moreover, in natural processes there is no trash production; everything is transformed and reabsorbed into nature creating cycles. We are the only species that generates trash.
The circular economy theory aims to rethink production processes and the use of materials. The idea is to reuse the materials of old or broken products for new products. Its aim is to turn waste into a resource. One industry’s waste might be another’s raw materials. Items should last longer but also be broken apart to create new items. According to this theory, trash can be treated as a valuable material preventing or reducing the growth rate of trash that we already have in landfills and in the ocean.
Turning challenges into successful projects
Due to increasing environmental pressures and the increase of raw materials prices, some companies are redesigning their production, finding the circular economic model an attractive solution. This system reduces costs as the materials used in the production are coming from other products. Companies just need to transform the matierals to use them again.
Many companies are changing their designs to facilitate the use of previously used materials. There are also other initiatives at the international level creating a legal framework that facilitates the transition to a sustainable economic model. At the European level there is already the Circular Economy Implementation Plan developed by the European Commission. Coming from academia and NGOs there is increasing pressure for the creation of a Materials Passport to provide companies with the information they need to use other´s materials in their own production.
Design and production for circular economy has moved beyond a purely environmental focus to also include economic and social aspects. A more aware society has facilitated the flourishing of conscious companies. The increasing need to think about how our waste can build capital rather than reducing it cannot be denied, and the transition to a circular economy might be an optimal solution.