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  • Kitty Pityer

What Is a Circular Economy?

When industrialization exploded at the beginning of the 20th century, it was based upon a one-way model. Manufacturers used raw materials to create a product they sold to consumers who used it until it was discarded as waste after its usefulness ended. This “linear economy” is based upon a “take-make-consume-waste” philosophy. It was fueled by the belief that the raw materials used to create products were limitless. A manufacturer’s responsibility for a product ended once it had been sold. No thought was given to what would happen to the product once its useful life was over and there was little concern about the impact manufacturing practices had on the natural environment.

Value was created by producing and selling as many products as possible. Craftsmanship and durability were replaced with planned obsolescence where products were increasingly designed to break or become outdated. This resulted in an item being discarded rather than repaired and a new item purchased.

Plastic has become the workhorse material of the modern world because it is cheap, versatile and tough. Single-use plastic products such as plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles are an alarming example of the fast-track journey from creation to waste that is typical in a linear economy. Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year - almost one bag per person each day. In addition, people in the U.S. throw away more than 60 million plastic water bottles every day.

Although plastic is created using nonrenewable resources, its use is projected to continue to increase at a disturbing rate. Most plastic products, containers and packaging end up in landfills as waste at high environmental costs.

Due to the growing awareness that our natural resources of oil, coal, natural gas, timber and metals are finite, a new model has emerged to challenge the linear economy. It is a circular economy in which products are designed to reuse the raw materials from which they are made. The emphasis is on the conservation of raw materials and the prevention of waste.

A circular economy changes how value is created and preserved. Resource use is minimized and reusing raw materials or parts is maximized. It is a “make/remake – use/reuse” economy. It may require us to rethink the concept of ownership. What if we didn’t own the products in our homes but rather licensed them from the manufacturers? When their usefulness ended, the manufacturers would take them back and create new products from their components. Some examples are already starting to pop up. Instead of selling you hundreds of DVDs, Netflix sells access to your favorite movies. Xerox provides a free printer to companies who pay per copy which motivates Xerox to produce a long-lasting, repairable printer. In a linear economy, the manufacturer would only benefit if a consumer continued to purchase new DVDs or when a new printer was purchased after the old one no longer worked.

In just over one hundred years, the linear economy model has significantly depleted our natural resources, required the building of thousands of landfills to contain our waste, and polluted the air, waterways and oceans.

Now imagine a world without waste where the products of today are the raw materials of tomorrow and the impact of production on the environment is carefully considered. That is a circular economy.

If it can't be reduced, reused,

repaired, rebuilt, refurbished,

refinished, resold,

recycled or composted,

Then it should be restricted, redesigned

or removed from production.

Pete Seeger,

American folk singer and social activist


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