What is a ‘circular economy’?

The ‘circular economy’ – everything has value and nothing is wasted. Add this term to your dictionary, it’s a good one.

You might hear this term being thrown around as the solution to a sustainable future. But what does it actually mean?

To start, let’s think about the system we have at the moment. Imagine a line – products or services are made, used, then disposed of. Materials are wasted at the end of the line and we lose the value of these materials. This is called a ‘linear’ economy.

One example is single use plastic packaging – used once then thrown away. It’s estimated that in Europe only 5% of the value of plastics in packaging stays in the economy. I.e., every year we throw away packaging worth 70-105 billion euros. We can’t afford this.

What if we could design out waste and create a system where materials cycle through the system in a loop, never escaping, being used and regenerated. This is the idea behind the circular economy.

WRAP defines the circular economy as an economy in which ‘we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life’.

It doesn’t just mean recycling. Recycling is one component of the circle. The circular economy turns ‘waste’ into a resource; reusing, repairing and sharing items and services.

In very simple terms: in a circular economy everything has value and nothing is wasted.

Diagram of some components of a circular economy. Taken from: http://www.wrap.org.uk/about-us/about/wrap-and-circular-economy

Case Studies:

A circular economy might seem brilliant as a concept, but how does it work in reality? Here are a few examples of ‘circular’ businesses around the world.

Toast Ale: making beer out of… old and surplus bread. Toast works with local bakeries to find bread for its beers. By using bread instead of traditional barley, carbon emissions and land space are saved. ‘Single-use’ containers have been eliminated – they use steel kegs to transport beer which, when empty, are collected from pubs, cleaned and reused. Glass beer bottles are sourced from local factories with a recycled content of 43%. These bottles can all be recycled. Toast even share the recipe online so people can brew their own beer at home from unwanted crusts or stale loaves. Check it out here: https://www.toastale.com/homebrew-recipe/

Vigga: a Danish company that gives you a wardrobe that grows with your child. With a monthly subscription to Vigga you get 20 pieces of children’s clothing. When the clothes don’t fit anymore, you just return them and you’ll get another set of clothes a size bigger. The clothes are designed to be high quality and to last – every garment is used multiple times, recycled through a circular system. There are loads of clothes sharing initiatives and apps such as Rent the Runway, The Resolution Store, Tuleria, Girl Meets Dress, the Nu Wardrobe – check out what is available in your local area.

Thinking Circular

Look at the things around you. Pick an item or system. Think about how you could re-design it in a circular way. Think about what it is made from, how it is made, how it could be used and shared, what happens if it breaks, what can it be used for or re-purposed into?

For the circle to work, we need all need to be involved – from governments, to business, to industry to communities and individuals. No one likes to be outside the circle.

By Liz Heard

Information taken from:
http://www.wrap.org.uk/about-us/about/wrap-and-circular-economy
https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/
https://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/our-work/circular-economy
https://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-5_en.htm
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