What is the Circular Economy?
Want to lower your environmental footprint? In this intro to circular economy, you’ll learn the benefits of this regenerative and recyclable way of living, plus new ideas and recommendations on how to improve your green, sustainable, zero-waste living efforts.
This guest post is by Rebecca Kimber, a sustainable living blogger and ISSP Sustainability Associate. She helps her readers on EarthyB.com find inspiring sustainable living ideas and circular economy products while also explaining environmental solutions. She’s a Swedish-born California-girl, wife, and mom living in the Silicon Valley.
Over to you, Rebecca!
Right after I had my first child, the Deepwater oil rig exploded. As I rocked my brand new baby, I watched as millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. I became increasingly anxious about the future he would face on this planet.
I decided to do whatever I could to be the greenest, zero-waste mom possible. I shopped at the local farmers’ market, I used reusable bags, and cloth diapers. But after trying this for a few years, and eventually becoming the mom of two, I felt like I was failing again and again.
Everything seemed to be wrapped in plastic and layers of cardboard packaging. Cloth diapers were exhausting to clean, and washing them used a lot of energy and water. Every classroom and birthday party we attended was stacked high with pizza boxes and plastic gift bags. I was surrounded by waste that I couldn’t control. I realized all my environmental efforts were inconvenient at best, and futile at worst. I had to find a better way.
That’s when I began investigating bigger-picture solutions and eventually came across the circular economy movement that’s popular in Europe and slowly growing in the United States.
What is the Circular Economy?
“A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Reading that was my ah-ha moment. Finally, I had found an environmental solution that impacts the entire system and doesn’t require individuals to bend over backward to lower their environmental footprint. Here’s what a circular economy is, and how we can help move it along.
1) Design Out Waste
The reason there’s so much waste and pollution is not that we’re flawed or lazy humans. It’s because so many things are poorly designed. If you look at any container of cleaning products in your kitchen, whether it’s organic or not, most likely it’s in a big plastic bottle. That plastic bottle contains about 90% water and 10% cleaning solution. That adds up to a lot of waste.
Instead, in a circular economy, products are designed to do more with fewer materials. The term sustainability professionals use is ‘dematerialization’.
My favorite example of a product that has designed out waste is Grove Collaborative’s cleaning concentrates. They come in a 1oz tube and you simply add the concentrate into an empty glass bottle, add water, and start cleaning. When you run out, you repeat with a new 1oz bottle. That 1oz bottle uses significantly fewer materials than a traditional 26oz plastic container.
That may not sound revolutionary if you’re just looking at a few cleaning pods, but when you consider how many of our products are simply water, fillers, and packaging it all adds up.
2) Keep Products and Materials in Use
You may have heard the term “keep it in the loop,” a term synonymous with the circular economy. But how do we keep products and materials in use when so much of what we buy only gets used once and then is thrown away? Most companies take from nature (cotton, minerals, oil, trees) and make something (clothes, jewelry, energy, furniture) and eventually those products end up in landfills or as pollution.
The world is now only 8.6% circular according to Circularity Gap. That’s because we extract more virgin materials than we reuse or recycle. Most products are still designed to be thrown away, and most waste management systems are not able to recycle and regenerate all the materials that come in.
One example of this waste comes from the textiles used for clothes. Landfills received 11.2 million tons of textiles in 2017, which was 8% of all municipal solid waste in the United States (source). That’s bad for the environment because natural resources like cotton, trees, and metals from mines all over the world were used to make the clothes and products that eventually end up being thrown away.
So what’s a girl to do? I certainly don’t want to stop buying clothes. I have a weakness for pretty dresses. My closet is full of them and most of them I’ve only worn once, especially the dresses I bought for special occasions like weddings and costume parties.
Well, now, I rarely buy anything new. Instead, I rent dresses for special occasions and buy used clothes whenever possible. Rent the Runway is a great example of a circular economy company.
When you rent instead of buy, you extend the life of a dress. Instead of it being worn once and then taking up space in your closet, that same dress can be used, cleaned, and repaired many times by many women. That saves natural resources, and it’s also a less expensive way to wear a different dress to every event.
I also buy a lot of my basics like tops, dresses, and shorts used at thredUP. When we buy used instead of new, we keep those clothes inside the “economy” rather than letting it turn into waste and pollution in a landfill. Not only is buying used better for my own pocketbook (thredUP sells most brand name clothes for up to 90% off retail price), but it’s also better for the economy when clothes are sold again and again.
Did I mention a circular economy is not only better for the planet, but also our economy? Win, win.
I still buy new clothes and shoes occasionally but I look for sustainability-minded brands like Patagonia that use circular economy methods throughout their company. Patagonia even re-sells their own used clothes on their website through their Worn Wear program, so it’s easy to keep their products in the loop.
You may be wondering what happens to used clothes that are damaged beyond repair in a circular economy. Ideally, those clothes are upcycled and eventually recycled and turned into something new. The technology needed to recycle clothes is improving, and will hopefully continue to improve over the next several years.
3) Regenerate Natural Systems
In nature, there is no waste. Every plant and animal becomes food for something new. Today, there’s a new movement underway for companies to create products from regenerative systems that improve soil and make ecosystems healthy again. Advocates for regenerative farming methods say healthy soil can be used to sequester carbon, which could be one tool in a toolbox needed to slow global warming.
Brands like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s have partnered with the Rodale Institute to create the Regenerative Organic Certification program, and the first certified products rolled out earlier this year. These products come from natural systems that are certified based on soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. A few products that have already been released include Patagonia’s Organic Chile Mango and Dr. Bronner’s Coconut Oil.
The Savory Institute has created a different program, Ecological Outcome Verified through Land to Market™, to certify products that come from farms generating healthier soil and ecosystems. They call it the world’s first verified regenerative sourcing solution for meat, dairy, wool, and leather.
Some of the “Frontier Founders” working with the Savory Institute include Epic Provisions, Applegate, Eileen Fisher, and Zukes. The regenerative movement is young, but more regenerative products should be rolling out in the coming years.
The Future of Circular Economy
When I feel worried about what the future holds, I now look toward the circular economy movement and leaders like Ellen MacArthur who are forging a green path forward so our children and economy can thrive.
Today I’m a sustainable living blogger and certified ISSP Sustainability associate. I connect readers with circular economy products, environmental solutions, and sustainable home improvement ideas that are useful, beautiful, and inspiring.
Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing your wisdom with us!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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