Featured,  Global Changes,  Innovation,  Sustainability

Circular Economy: Turning Waste into Resources

By Roberta Attanasio

We take, we make, we dispose — in this daily process, we deplete irreplaceable natural resources and generate not only massive waste, but also extensive environmental and health hazards. Our current economy — or linear economy — is based on the take-make-dispose approach. However, this approach is not sustainable. We need to ask ourselves a crucial question: how can we generate clean prosperity today, while preserving resources and ecological functions for use by future generations? In other words, how can we build a sustainable economy? The answer is: we can do so by adopting a new approach, one based on the so-called circular economy.

Photo credit: Jan Fidler, licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is one that is restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.

In the circular economy, materials and products are reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled. Waste can be turned into resources.

The inspiration for the circular economy approach is nature. Waste does not exist in nature, because ecosystems reuse everything that grows in a never-ending cycle of efficiency and purpose. Thus, the circular economy approach is based on an economic system in which no materials are wasted. In such a model, “Instead of selling products, we should retain ownership and sell their use as a service, allowing us to optimize the use of resources. Once we sell the benefits of the products instead of the products themselves, we begin to design for longevity, multiple reuse, and eventual recycling. This requires a new generation of materials as well as innovative development and production processes. In addition, we need to define new business models and redefine the concept of legal ownership and use, public tendering rules, and financing strategies. And we need adaptive logistics and a leadership culture that embraces and rewards the circular economy.”

The video below, by the European Commission, is a fascinating tour of different creative approaches that are now being used to move towards a circular economy.



  • Ransom

    The circular economy sounds like an ideal way of doling out resources. Fonebank takes phone models from the mobile-savvy UK population and ships many out to less developed nations as well as selling them back within the UK. Although something seems off about selling these people our second-hand wares, it is a marvelous way of spreading wealth around and putting money back into a global economy. Also a single pair of jeans takes 8,000 litres of water?! I hope that statistic is regarding a cotton crop and not just a single pair. The renting system sounds like perfection, as long as they’ll allow for all the holes and stains at the end of my jean’s trial run. Hopefully this business practice can find its way over the ocean from Amsterdam to America.

  • S.dayman

    I fully support the circular economy initiative but how can an average individual make a difference? When I am able to support a sustainable business, I do so. However, their products tend to cost more and to a parent of 2 small children, that is a big problem. I feel that legislation should be enacted which puts a heavier tax burden on unsustainable businesses and less on sustainable ones. As the cost of running an unsustainable business rises, the business will be forced to increase the price of their products or switch their business to a sustainable model. Thereby making the sustainable products less costly to consumers.

    The average individual should also do whatever they can to reuse and recycle. In my home of 2 adults and 2 children, we only produce 1 bag of trash every other month or so. Every scrap of biodegradable material is composted, we store food in washable material and never use plastic bags. Small changes like not putting veggies in plastic bags at the grocery store, can make a huge difference in the amount of trash you produce. This has also been a great way for us to teach our children about trash and the importance of reusing and recycling. They actually like putting food scraps in the compost and seeing it turn in soil for our plants.

    • M. Coole

      I agree that increasing taxes on unsustainable goods and businesses will eventually help promote the idea of a circular economy. With government regulations, companies would be forced to either pay a lot of money and be unsustainable or switch to a sustainable business plan. With the idea of recycling, if more states implemented the necessary regulations for sustainability, such as California, we would be able to help the environment. It is more expensive for Californians to not recycle, so it makes people more willing to be green.

  • Rachel Mirpour

    Have you ever watched the TV show called “Shark Tank”? It is a show where entrepreneurs bring their ‘million dollar ideas’ to very successful business men and women, also referred to as a ‘shark’. Last night, I happened to run across an episode of Shark Tank where 2 women wanted to sell a cell phone case that also acted as a purse. You can see their product on their
    website. If you have a chance to watch this particular episode, you can see one of the sharks named Robert say something to the effect that “they already have millions of these in Europe, so why should we buy your idea” and one of the girls responded with something like this — “well, those cases don’t have a pocket where you can hold your money, so basically we took the same idea and added a pocket and mirror”. In my mind I was thinking, why in the world would you generate MORE plastic that will eventually clutter our Earth with a meaningless product that won’t even stand the test of time? Let us be honest, most people rush to purchase the newest and greatest next best phone and this, in and of itself, is a revolving door of waste. So you are done with your phone because the newest model has come out, you want to get rid of it, and of course – you get rid of this ‘fancy’ purse case. Sure, you can sell your old phone to companies online where you mail it in and you receive a check for the value of your phone. But what really happens to your phone? Is it recycled? Is it given to the poor? Well, if you think ‘yes’ to either of these options, then I am sure you are thinking that this is a great idea and that you did your part to help the Earth. Well, think again. This brings up a whole new set of problems involving toxic chemicals that float into our environment and more often than not, these chemicals are directly breathed in by factory workers scrimmaging through your ‘recycled’ phone for metal that will eventually be sold for profit. This process occurs in countries like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam and Pakistan. Workers in these ’recycling facilities’, mostly women and children workers, have no protective equipment and these high levels of toxic chemicals are either inhaled by persons within the vicinity and/or emitted directly into the atmosphere. Yes, there are restrictions in nations like the United States and Europe, but restrictions end here and are no more once our ‘e-waste’ is transported internationally for ‘recycling’ purposes. According to the Ellen MacArther Foundation, in order to create a circular economy, we need to adopt the idea of retaining ownership instead of selling products and we should sell their use as a service so that resources may be optimized. This is a great idea, but what would corporate America gain from this idea of ownership? Quite honestly, I believe that corporate America is an institution based on greed and profit and it is really hard for me to imagine it making the decision to LOSE MONEY as a result of dealing with their own trash and figuring out a way to utilize it in a way that is safe to both humans and the environment. Sometimes it is just more profitable for companies to pay a fine rather than re-design and execute a more desirable, smaller ecological global footprint.

    • mgnd88

      There are a lot of good thoughts here. We can all agree that many of the things we own are actually not needed, and the telephone accessory that you mention is a very good example of them. And then, as another example think of the Apple Watch, this watch is just part of “Apple’s big plan to make you want things you don’t need”. Is Apple measuring the footprint created by this watch? What are the environmental costs of owning such a watch? We need to change our minds on what we want, and change our minds thinking of the entire planet and everyone that lives on it (and in it).

    • M. Ilic

      Your post reminded me of fluoridated water. Big companies that manufacture things like aluminum have fluoride as a byproduct. They have no way of getting rid of the fluoride so someone came up with the bright idea of putting it in the water supply and telling us that it is good for our teeth and prevents against cavities. If you have time, take a look at a documentary called “The Great Culling”, it is on youtube and very informative.

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