The concept of a circular economy that reduces and repurposes waste is gaining momentum around the world. The following article was published in the March-April 2022 issue of NewsNotes

In 2013, after setting the world record for sailing solo around the world in less than 72 days, Dame Ellen MacArthur said, “no experience in my life could have given me a better understanding of the word ‘finite.’ What we have out there is all we have. There is no more.”

Based on this realization, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is dedicated to working with leaders from business, education, and government to build what is known as a “circular economy” that fits within the physical limits of the Earth.

A circular economy is designed to reduce waste as much as possible through the sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling of existing materials and products for as long as possible. Efforts to initiate this kind of economy come from non-governmental organizations, businesses, and governments alike.

Among the successes of the Ellen McArthur Foundation is the creation of the “Global Commitment,” a vision of a circular economy for plastics that has been endorsed by over 500 organizations. Companies that represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to ambitious 2025 targets to help realize the goals of a circular economy for plastic.

This stands in contrast to the dominant model for production, which involves businesses extracting virgin natural resources and converting them into products which are usually thrown away soon after use – the “take, make, and waste” model. Flowing from a growing awareness of the finiteness of natural resources in the wake of widespread environmental destruction, researchers and activists are working to promote more sustainable economic models, including various models for circular economies.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified five primary circular business models.

The first is known as the circular supply model, in which renewable or bio-based materials are used for production instead of virgin materials. The second is the resource recovery model, in which waste from one business serves as input materials for production in other firms. Two good examples are the Kalundborg Symbiosis in Denmark and the Circular Valley in Germany, which are hubs of businesses committed to working together to create their supply chains from within.

The third model is known as product life extension, where businesses make their products more durable and easier to be reused, repaired, refurbished, or remanufactured. For example, the French government maintains a “repair index” that rates different products on their ease of repair and reuse.

The fourth model is called the “sharing model,” in which companies use virtual platforms to promote the sharing of materials. Popular examples are Zipcar and AirBnb.

The final model the OECD names is called “product-service systems,” or “services instead of product,” where instead of selling a product, a company sells the services their product can provide. Examples are Uber, the “Cloud” for data storage, and the leasing of office copiers. The user is not the owner of the product.

Several countries around the world have become leaders in promoting circular economy models in their domestic economies. China is widely considered the frontrunner.

Circular economy hubs in China tend to involve thousands of enterprises operating in concentrated industrial parks and export zones. A centralized government is helpful in scaling up projects around the country.

Finland is another leader in building a circular economy, even within the European Union, which has named building a circular economy as a goal for the bloc. The Finnish Road Map to the Circular Economy unites efforts around the country and has served as a blueprint for other countries and municipalities.

Yet even with this initiative, Finland struggles to be less wasteful. While Finns have dramatically decreased the amount of waste going to landfills, they are creating more waste than they did a few years ago, but it is being repurposed, including as fuel to be burned for additional energy.

It is important to acknowledge that while circular economy initiatives will be an important part of a future economy that is truly sustainable within the Earth’s limits, it needs to be combined with lowering overall consumption rates. Many materials can only be recycled a limited number of times. In the case of electronics, even the most advanced recycling facilities are only able to reuse 40% of embodied resources.

As the European Parliamentary Research Service shows, “the main challenge is linked with growing material stocks,” or demand for things like buildings, machinery, vehicles. “Because of [this growth in demand], we would still need significant inputs from raw materials even if we recycled 100% of discarded materials today,” the report explains. For a truly sustainable future, reusing and recycling resources in a circular economy is important but must be accompanied by an overall reduction in consumption.


Photo available on Unsplash.