An Introduction to Linear vs. Circular Economics
Take a moment to think about a product you have: it can be big, small, whatever you'd like it to be. Now ask yourself: what raw materials were used to create this product? How long will I use it for? How will it be disposed of when I'm finished with it? When answering these questions, you may find yourself lost on some of the answers. It can be difficult to know just where your products are coming from, unless you purposely look to purchase ethically-sourced items prior to buying.
Currently a majority of the products we purchase are made to be inexpensive and convenient. This causes a lot of unnecessary waste as products are typically used once, or only a handful of times, and then discarded as garbage. But we can change this way of making, thinking, and using.
A majority of the world runs on linear economics. Also known as the take-make-waste concept, this approach emphasizes convenience over social and environmental sustainability. Linear economics entails taking materials and natural resources from the earth, making something from it, and then discarding the waste.
This approach presents many issues, with one of the more crucial being the disregard for how an item will be disposed of once it reaches the end of its life.
Example: Look at a coffee cup, linear economics takes raw material such as wood to create a paper cup, or oil to create a styrofoam/plastic cup and lid. It is manufactured, packaged, shipped, and then available at your local cafe. You purchase your coffee, hold on to it for maybe 20-30 minutes, and then likely toss it into the nearest trash bin. We take the raw materials from the earth, make a single-use coffee cup, and create waste that is then sent to the landfill.
Circular economics prioritizes reusability. It aims to eliminate the take-make-waste model of consumption entirely by using items in efficient and effective ways. Disposal is considered at the primary stages of the process, ensuring that only usable waste will be created.
At the end of their life, materials are recirculated to replenish the system. This approach emphasizes designing waste and pollution out of the process, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Example: Let's take a look at our coffee cup again. Instead of creating an item that is single-use, a circular economy would look at creating a cup that can be reused, shared, repaired, and eventually recycled into something new. If it can't be made into something new, the materials can be used to replenish the circular economy or given back to the earth. A coffee cup in a circular economy would be made from glass, reused by an individual, shared in a "return your cup" program, repaired when it becomes worn, and eventually recycled. In this case, the glass coffee cup would be made into a new glass cup of similar nature, or into something different than its original purpose. For instance, insulation.
If we get into a little more detail, circular economics takes into account 5 varying business models:
1. Circular Supplies - Supply fully renewable, recyclable, or compostable resource inputs to support circular production. By doing so, the waste created at the end of the lifecycle is reduced or eliminated.
2. Resource Recovery - Eliminate material leakage and maximize economic value of product return flows. Resource recovery encompasses using materials and items efficiently and effectively. It considers material, waste, and re-making or repurposing.
3. Product Life Extension - Extend the current lifecycle of a product: repairability, upgrading, re-selling. Building for quality and longevity, as opposed to convenience.
4. Sharing Platform - Stimulating collaboration among product users. This emphasizes use over ownership. By sharing, the demand for the product or item is less, meaning less resources are used, less waste is created, and a greener world for all!
5. Product as a Service - Products are used by one or many customers through lease or pay-for-use arrangements. A great example of this is taxis, Ubers and Lyfts. Instead of using a personal vehicle, you can pay for a ride to get to where you need to go! This way, you can share rides with others, lessen cars on the road, and decrease emissions all at the same time.
How can you help contribute to a circular economy?
You can help contribute to a circular economy by:
- Engaging in products and services that use smart design and recycled materials.
- Extending the life of products you already own through repairs and refurbishing.
- Supporting companies that offer take-back programs
- Looking for access over ownership. Focus on the product or service you require and see if there is a shareable option instead of having to purchase your own. Can you rent, borrow, or swap?
Economics affect everyone and it's important to remember that the way you spend your dollars can have a large impact. It's up to you to choose how that dollar is spent and the impact you have! The economy is consumer-driven, meaning we all have the power to make change.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
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