What Is a Circular Economy and Why Is it the Next Big Thing in Sustainability?
We live in a society where our broken and unwanted goods are thrown away as easily as they’re replaced.
Our clothes alone produce an average of 17 million tons of landfill waste per year, and this number is only growing. That doesn’t even take into consideration all of the waste generated from producing clothes!
Our environment is continually overwhelmed with waste, resource consumption, and production, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need a new system.
The circular economy concept hopes to fix this cycle of waste-and-replace with one that reuses and recycles to the full extent, mitigating our waste and our resource consumption.
In simple terms, a circular economy is one that reuses, repairs, and recycles the vast majority of its products, ensuring that all items are used as much as possible. This economic system limits the need for new products by reusing the materials we already have.
The closed-loop system of a circular economy seeks to give all products a second life through repairs, refurbishing, and eventually recycling. It even goes farther than reusing products like clothes and furniture, and extends into global food production. In a circular economic system, there would be virtually no waste produced from any form of production, as all products—from food to clothes to infrastructure—would be reused as much as possible.
Currently, we live in a linear economy where resources are harvested and refined into products, and then eventually end up in landfills once discarded. This model is wholly unsustainable and is a direct cause of the environmental crises we’re facing.
The loop of buying, discarding, and replacing creates massive strains not only on our landfills, but also on our natural resources from mass consumption.
Our linear economic system depends on the idea that new products can always be created, and old products can always be tossed. Unfortunately, we’re using up our resources faster than we can sustainably replenish them, resulting in extreme resource consumption. In our current system:
As individuals, we can aim to mitigate our resource consumption by buying from brands that use quality control systems to boost transparency, durability, and sustainability in their supply chains, as well as purchasing items made from recycled material. However, these steps only take us so far as higher production rates put further strains on our natural resources every year.
Our linear economic model produces billions of tons of solid waste every year worldwide. This waste floods our landfills and environments, resulting in extreme amounts of oceanic and land–based pollution.
A significant amount of our thrown-out goods are still usable, whether through reuse, refurbishing, or recycling. However, while recycling has significantly reduced the quantity of waste in landfills, it’s still an imperfect system. Only about 14% of textiles and a staggering 8% of plastics are fully recycled, leaving the rest to flood landfills and incinerators.
In a circular economy, our products would be designed to be recycled and reused more efficiently, doing away with the idea of single-use products.
This wouldn’t eliminate waste entirely, but it would drastically reduce the amount of waste in our landfills and environments. Items—including packaging materials, clothes, electronics, and anything in between—would be reusable, compostable, or recyclable.
A circular economy would also reduce food waste. Nearly one-third of all food produced in the United States is thrown out, generating a significant amount of methane and carbon dioxide in landfills. Circular economic models seek to reuse excess organic resources as composting, animal feed, bioenergy, and even fabrics for the garment industry. This system relies on regenerative food production, where sustainable agricultural practices maximize the usage we get out of each product.
While such a large systemic shift can sound daunting, the transition to a circular economy doesn’t have to be a worldwide, overnight switch. We can take our own personal steps to limiting our consumption and waste by buying secondhand, composting, and reusing what we can. Use disposal and recycling as a last resort, and try to give all your belongings a second life.
Author: Lena Milton
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.
You can read more of her work on Pollution Education and RoHS Education.