Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our economies have exploited natural resources to turn them into products that are eventually discarded as waste. This “take-make-waste” economy has led us to where we are today: face-to-face with an environmental crisis that is jeopardising our very future. Does it have to be this way?
The short answer is ‘no.’ Momentum is building behind a very different way of using our resources: the Circular Economy. Instead of crude exploitation, it creates economic benefits, while making a positive impact on people and the environment.
The Circular Economy aims to preserve the world’s resources, and to revive the ailing landscapes, seascapes and biodiversity of our planet. It will provide high-quality jobs, along with economic opportunities that will lead to a healthy and diverse environment. In short, it’s about doing good, rather than simply doing a little less damage to the world around us.
The guiding principles of the Circular Economy are simple: to design products and services that do not create waste or pollution; to keep those products and their materials in use for as long as possible; and to regenerate natural systems. As these principles suggest, the Circular Economy model is looking to create two "virtuous circles" or cycles, one for technology and the other for biology (click on the picture for more information).
For technology, the task is to design a product in such a way that it never ends up in landfill. Instead, the aim is to mimic nature, where nothing is wasted. Reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling are all factored in while a product is still just an idea. The choice of raw materials, the way goods are made, and the post-use plan are all designed in advance.
It’s hardly radical. After all, most authors know the ending of their story before they start writing. The Circular Economy offers us the opportunity to have a different, and happier, ending. In addition, it creates an environment for new business models to emerge. One example of these is the growing popularity of sharing/renting products – rather than owning/buying. If a car is parked and depreciating in value for 96% of its life, as many studies suggest, is ownership always the best use of the Earth’s resources and people’s earnings?
If the challenge in technology and product cycles is to close loops, the same is true for biological cycles. Whether nature provides bio-source materials or energy for the technological cycle, or produces food and other organic materials, the final aim is to close loops by returning nutrients to the soil.
The age of waste is about to come to an end. There is simply no other option: better technologies and business models are available.
Today, the Circular Economy is recognised by many countries as the way ahead. And it will certainly play a key role in efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. However, it cannot be created out of thin air. It needs the public and the private sectors to work together, and for both of them to have the support of the citizens we all are, in order to implement the principles of a circular economy.