Have you ever stopped to think about the lifecycle of the products you use every day? From the raw materials that are extracted to the waste that is generated at the end of their useful life, the linear economy has a significant impact on our planet.
But what if there was a way to produce and consume goods and services more sustainably? A way that keeps resources in use for as long as possible and reduces waste to a minimum?
That's where the circular economy comes in.
In recent years, the circular economy has gained traction as a way to address some of the most dire challenges our planet is facing, and research shows that this economic model could create a promising future.
What is a circular economy?
In its most basic terms, a circular economy is a way of using resources more efficiently and sustainably. It's about keeping things in use for as long as possible and reducing waste.
Instead of the traditional take-make-waste approach that’s present in the linear economy, the circular economy is based on three principles (ordered by their relative positive impact):
- Reduce: Use less stuff in the first place.
- Reuse: Keep things in use for as long as possible.
- As a last resort, Recycle: Turn things into new things at the end of their useful life.
Imagine you have a plastic water bottle. In a linear economy, you would use the bottle once and then throw it away–but the story doesn’t end there. After you’ve tossed it away, the bottle is never used again, and ultimately ends up in one of a few different locations:
- Incinerated, where it will then enter our airstream to be consumed as microplastics
- Dumped in the ocean where it breaks down into microplastics that are consumed by the fish, plants, birds, and other marine life
- Landfilled, where it breaks down into microplastics that enter our crops and/or water sources
But in a circular economy, you would use the bottle as normal, and rather than “throwing it away”, you would then reuse the bottle multiple times, or you would recycle it into a new product.
Where did the idea of a circular economy come from?
The concept of the circular economy has been around for centuries, and when we think about it, saving and reusing what we have is intuitive and cost-saving. With that said, the circular economy has gained even more attention in recent years for several reasons:
- Increased awareness of environmental challenges: Young people all over the world are becoming more educated and more concerned about the future of our environment. 2021 data from Savanta reports that 80% of millennial consumers consciously attempt to minimize waste in their household, as do 73% of Gen Z consumers.
- Technological advancements: Technological advancements are making it easier and more cost-effective to implement circular practices. For example, new business models found in brands like Nuuly are emerging that allow companies to rent or lease products instead of selling them, and there are also new recycling technologies that can recycle a wider range of materials.
- Government support: Governments around the world are increasingly supporting the circular economy, and since countries like China have stopped collecting waste from the U.S., many municipalities are finding it difficult to figure out what they can do with the waste that’s produced here.
- Business interest: Businesses are also interested in the circular economy, as they see it as a way to reduce costs, improve their environmental performance, and meet the growing demand for sustainable products and services.
Why does a circular economy matter?
The circular economy is important because it offers a way to address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, and pollution. In terms of climate change, the circular economy can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need to extract new resources, manufacture new materials, re-distribute the products, and by recycling and composting materials. For plastic materials the impact is even greater since plastic is an Oil & Gas by-product, subsidizing the prices of gas, and ultimately breaking down into carbon (similar to how gas breaks down, but over centuries).
The circular economy can also help to conserve resources by reducing waste and by using recycled materials to produce new products. When it comes to pollution, adopting a circular economy can reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills, which are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.
When discussing the topic of waste, it’s crucial to note the social inequalities that are present in waste management, disposal, and the global waste trade. Lower-income communities often lack access to adequate waste management and disposal facilities all over the world, and the global waste trade intensifies environmental inequality and exploitation because the individuals who suffer the most from this waste did not produce it in the first place.
Examples of the circular economy today
(Image via Elle Canada)
With the growing support of this economic model, there are various examples of the circular economy at work in industries around the world!
- Companies like Tesla use recycled materials in its batteries and offer a battery recycling program. The company is also working to develop new battery technologies that are more durable and recyclable.
- While large companies have a responsibility to lead the charge in adopting a circular economy, growing businesses like Good Filling Company are doing their part to move away from the linear economy as well. As the first company to offer a scalable solution to the single-use crisis, Good Filling Company is bridging the gap between sustainability and accessibility with its automated refill machines for home care, personal care, and beverage products
- Nike, one of the most recognizable brands in the world, uses recycled materials in its shoes and clothing, and it offers a take-back program for used shoes. The company is also working to develop new sustainable materials and manufacturing processes.
Food and Agriculture
- Recycle Track System estimates that wasting food contributes to 11 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the reality is that much of the waste produced in the food manufacturing process (40 million tons) could be repurposed and reused. For example, the brewing industry has experienced a realistic application of the circular economy, where spent grain (the main byproduct of the brewing process) can be upcycled into zero-waste flour for use in bakeries.
- Patagonia is a well-known example of a company that is embracing the circular economy. It has several initiatives in place to reduce waste and keep products in use for as long as possible (like the Worn Wear Program and its repair services) and has even promoted the act of consuming and buying less with provocative ads during the holiday season.
- According to the popular fashion brand Reformation, they believe the future of fashion is circular, and that “making something new shouldn't have to mean using virgin materials”. Their goal is to be fully circular by 2030 and have outlined a detailed plan on how they are working to get there.
The positive impact of a circular economy
There is a growing body of research that supports the positive impact of a circular economy and demonstrates why our government, companies, and consumers should adopt this model.
- A 2018 study by the University of Leeds found that the circular economy could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fashion industry by 73%.
- A 2020 study by the World Resources Institute found that the circular economy could reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.
- A 2021 study by the European Environment Agency found that the circular economy could reduce the amount of waste generated in the EU by 40% by 2030.
How consumers can advocate for a circular economy
By adopting circular practices, we can create a more sustainable future for ourselves and for generations to come. Each of us can start implementing circular practices in our day-to-day lives by:
- Reducing: Reduce the amount of stuff you buy and use! This can be done by planning your meals ahead of time, shopping with a list, and avoiding impulse purchases.
- Reusing: Reuse items whenever possible. This could include things like bringing your reusable bags when you go shopping, using reusable water bottles and coffee mugs, and even refilling common household items at Good Filling Stations.
- Recycling: While reducing and reusing should be the first actions, it’s also important to recycle materials when you must dispose of them to limit more waste.
- Composting: Compost food scraps and yard waste and transform them into resources that can be used!
The new circular economy is still in its earlier stages of implementation, but it is gaining momentum quickly with promising research. As businesses, governments, and consumers continue to adopt circular practices, we can create a more sustainable future for everyone.
About Good Filling Company
Good Filling runs and operates automated refill machines for home care, personal care, and beverage products, offering homes an accessible and affordable way to help the planet. Our Good Filling Stations allow consumers to reuse their own containers to prevent plastics from entering the waste stream.
With Stations across the United States, and many more on their way, we’re bringing convenience to the zero-waste movement. To learn more about Good Filling Stations and to find one near you, click here.