People have known for centuries already, that the way we consume and produce things is not sustainable. If we keep going this way, the worlds natural recourses will run dry at some point and a lot of the world will become unlivable. People have more money to spend on food, clothing and other stuff and while it’s great a great thing that people standards of living are improving, the downside is we’re creating even more demand for resources. The linear economy relies on companies striving to sell more, which in turn makes them only focus on cutting costs and thinking of new ways to make consumers buy more. We buy new phones every two years and new clothes every month and companies try to push us to buy even more. Subscriptions services are becoming more and more popular, who really needs new cosmetics or jewellery every month?
In order to have any change of saving this world, we need a completely new mindset. We need to leave behind our linear way of thinking and consuming. In a linear economy things are made, used and then become waste. Around 11 million tons of textiles end up in landfills every year. The opposite of linear, a circular economy is one where raw materials and resources stay in the loop and things are made to last. This might sound simple, but most people will always choose the easy or cheap way. That is why the change has to happen on government level and with companies. The only way to make the mainstrem choose the better option, is to work towards making it the only one.
When talking about a transition to a circular economy, there are three widely known and used principles defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. Striving for any one of these can surely be seen as a good thing, but adapting all three is the only way to achieve a fully circular economy.
Design is perhaps the greatest tool we have for working to save this planet. It is the first step in the three principles mentioned earlier, but it’s also in the centre of all of them. We need products that can be fixed over and over again or that can be taken apart and their materials completely reused. Production lines that don’t produce waste and are powered by renewable energy, even self-sufficient. In order for any of this to be achieved it needs to be designed that way from the beginning. Recycling plastic bottles and using them as fibres in clothing is a great innovation but it isn’t really all that effective. The percentage of recycled materials isn’t usually very high and even more often than that the product itself isn’t recyclable. Humans have always been pretty good at what they set out to do so when something was designed to be “single-use” it can be almost impossible to turn that around. On the other hand, we have a lot of examples of things that were made to last. Houses, at least here in Finland hold up for hundreds of years, some drive cars that were made decades ago. We do know how to design something that will last, it just comes down to wanting to do so. Cars and houses are both something that people expect to last a long time since they’ve paid great money for them. By seeing the real value of the everyday things we need and demanding quality, we can have better designs.
The second principle is to keep products and materials in use. Recycling is a good start and something we should keep doing with the system we have, but it definitely isn’t the best option. According to National Geographic only about 9% of the plastic people take to recycling centres actually ends up recycled. For this reason recycling, at least in the form we know it now isn’t really a big part of circular thinking. In a perfect circular economy, throwing things in a recycling bin and hoping they will get turned into something new would be the very last option. In order to keep products and materials in use, they have to be, again, designed that way to begin with. Of course, we as consumers can start by taking better care of our clothes and other things, fixing or getting them fixed. But in order for this to become the standard way of consuming it has to be something that is incentivised by the company selling the product in the first place. A great example of this is the clothing brand Patagonia. They strive to use responsible high-quality materials, give instructions on how to best care for your products and offer free repairs. Another big part of this principle is to design completely new ways of production. Any by-products should be put back into the production or used in some other way, for example for energy.
The third principle calls for regenerating natural systems. With the way people have treated earth for centuries, many believe that we are beyond the point of just protecting nature, we have to help it regenerate. Our nature works in a circular way. When a tree dies, its leaves and branches become nutrients in the ground allowing new life to grow. Our consumption has to become a part of this circle. Simply composting any food scraps in a household is a great way to start, but individual actions can only do so much. We need to opt for renewable energy in every field and support regenerative farming. Big farms often rely on destructive methods to produce maximum profit. Growing food ourselves or communally is a big trend right now and something that surely will take us closer to the goal. An Australian company Pocket city farms is doing just this. They grow free food in Sydney for locals, sell fresh stuff to local restaurants and to the public. They also turn green waste back into the soil and put food waste from restaurants and cafes into their massive compost bins. Most people live in cities anyways, so by bringing farming closer to us we can take a huge strain of from land use and help those lands regenerate. (Simm, 2020)
Like any new way of thinking, the idea of a circular economy deserves some criticism too. Because we still live in a capitalist system and wealth and people’s desire to consume are growing around the world, that is what a lot of the circular thinking seems to revolve around too, consuming. In order to drastically lower our carbon usage, we can’t just focus on consuming better, but consuming less. Way less. A research article by Trevor Zink called “Circular economy rebound” argues that circular economy activities can increase overall production, which can offset their benefits. A company might be selling a product that is fully recycled, recyclable and can last a long time as a responsible option. What they often fail to mention is that the most responsible option is to not get it at all. (Zink, 2017)
Talking about sustainability in any way is often quite tiring. It seems that all we have are bad options and everything one can do is hard and expensive. This definitely doesn’t have to be the case with circular thinking. When we just work together to develop a new mindset this can offer huge opportunities and I personally believe that in the future the biggest companies in the world will be circular. In a way, they’ll have to be.
Foundation, E. M. (n.d.). What is the circular economy? Retrieved from www.archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org: https://archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy
Simm, G. S. (2020, December 9). WAYS TO REGENERATE OUR FOOD AND NATURAL SYSTEMS. Retrieved from https://www.seasidescavenge.org: https://www.seasidescavenge.org/blog/ways-to-regenerate-our-food-and-natural-systems
Zink, T. (2017, February 05). Circular Economy Rebound. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jiec.12545