What is the Circular Economy?

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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.

Improve your green living lifestyle

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!

Rebecca Kimber, blonde woman in grey cardigan

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. 

Grove Collaborative cleaning products for laundry

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. 

RELATED:  Green Living Guide: 7 Ways to Transition to a Non-Toxic Life

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!

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Tips for a healthier home

Here are some eco-friendly home care tips for a healthy and green living:
  • Switch your cleaning products to eco-friendly options. You can find many of these in the grocery store and online.
  • Use sustainable materials for furniture, such as wood instead of plastic or metal. This will help create less waste and reduce the amount of natural resources that are used to produce them.
  • Choose lightbulbs with little or no mercury. These not only create less waste but also have an impact on climate change by using less electricity.
  • Plant trees around your property. Trees benefit the environment by providing shade, absorbing carbon dioxide, and purifying the air with their leaves. They also provide fuel for firewood during colder months and a habitat for wildlife. The benefits of planting trees go far beyond what you see right in front of you!

Green cleaning products

One way to make your home more eco-friendly is by switching over to green cleaning products. These products aren’t as harsh on the environment as traditional household cleaners and are less likely to cause allergies or other health issues. Plus, you can find a variety of green cleaning products that work for every type of surface in your home.

Switching to eco-friendly cleaning products

There are many cleaning products that you can use in your home that are environmentally friendly. One of the best ways to start is by switching to eco-friendly cleaning products. Many people don’t know that there are many types of eco-friendly cleaning products on the market today, including laundry detergent and dishwasher soap. A switch to green cleaners can be a simple way to create an environmentally friendly living environment.

Safer and more environmentally friendly ways to clean your home

If you want to make your home safer and more environmentally friendly, then you can switch from using toxic cleaning products to using eco-friendly alternatives. For example, if you want to clean your toilet, then you could use vinegar instead of bleach or other harsh chemicals. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant and deodorizer, so it will do the job without harming the environment. You can also use baking soda as a healthy alternative to many household cleaners. Baking soda is an abrasive cleaner that breaks down dirt and grime; it’s also non-toxic, so it won’t harm people or the environment. It’s also inexpensive, so you can use it liberally without worrying about running out of supply too quickly.

Sustainable living

Most people are more aware of the environment these days and want to do their part to make it a better place. Homeowners and renters alike are doing everything from switching to environmentally friendly cleaning products, to using sustainable materials for furniture. Here are some tips for living an eco-friendly lifestyle in your home:
    • Clean with white vinegar – You can use this as a natural disinfectant that is also eco-friendly. It is also inexpensive and easy on your pipes because you won’t be putting harsh chemicals down the drain.
    • Avoid aerosol cans – Aerosol cans contain harmful chemicals that will release into the air when sprayed. Try switching to an eco-friendly product or find another way to clean.
    • Use reusable napkins – Napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, even facial tissue all come wrapped in paper (or other packaging). Reusable napkins or dish towels will give you one less thing you need to throw away every day!
    • Put up a clothesline – Even if you live in an apartment or condo where putting up a clothesline isn’t possible, there are many ways you can still dry your clothes without using electricity or gas. For example, hang them outside on a sunny day or turn your oven on low heat and hang them from the top rack.

Living with less waste in your home

One of the best ways to reduce your ecological footprint is by reducing the amount of waste that your household produces. Take a look at what you’re throwing away and try to find alternatives.
For example, instead of buying disposable napkins, use cloth napkins that you can throw into the wash. If you need face wipes for removing makeup, consider making them yourself from reusable materials like cotton rounds. And if you want to stop using plastic bags, use canvas bags or have bags made from recycled material. There are many other ideas for eco-friendly alternatives in your home as well.

Sustainable materials for furniture

Did you know that the average American generates over 4 pounds of waste every day? This means that we are throwing away a lot of furniture and other items in our homes. To stop contributing to this problem, it is best to use sustainable materials for furniture. Sustainable materials are made from recycled materials which can be up-cycled into new products. Not only are these items better for the environment, but they also save money because the items will last longer.
Sustainable materials for furniture include:
      • Recycled plastic
      • MDF
      • Plywood
      • Timber reclaimed from old buildings or driftwood
      • Bamboo
      • Faux leather (made from cotton)
The pursuit of a healthy, green and sustainable home is achievable for anyone. It will require more time and effort, but the payoff will be worth it.
Start with the small things. Make a conscious effort to recycle, turn off appliances and lights when you’re not using them, and check your thermostat. It’s easy to get into a routine of living without giving it much thought, but the more you make an effort, the easier it will be to live sustainably.
After you’ve made changes in your everyday life, look for furniture that is made with sustainable materials. You can also buy an eco-friendly houseplant for your home that requires little care.
    1. Tips for a healthier home:
      • Turn off appliances and lights when you’re not using them
      • Check your thermostat
      • Make a conscious effort to recycle
    2. Green cleaning products:
      • Switching to eco-friendly cleaning products
      • Safer and more environmentally friendly ways to clean
      • Sustainable living:
      • Living with less waste in your home
      • Sustainable materials for furniture
  • Sustainable materials for furniture:
    • Consider buying furniture made with sustainable
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