Take, make, use, dispose. For centuries, this has been the standard approach to production and consumption. Companies take raw materials and transform them into products, which are purchased and used by consumers, who ultimately toss them out, creating waste. Increasingly, people are starting to challenge the sustainability of this model. Many — including the EU and the governments of China, Japan and the U.K. — argue that we should ditch this linear system in favor of a so-called circular economy of take, make, use, reuse and reuse again and again.
1. What’s wrong with the linear economy?
It often leads to a system that is inefficient and costly and that harms the environment or depletes natural resources. Mining metals, from gold to coal, can spoil ecosystems and disrupt nearby communities. Making steel from ore requires a large amount of energy, which produces globe-warming carbon dioxide. A byproduct of the linear model is material waste, which takes up space and may include contaminants. Trash ends up in undesirable places. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the most well-known example of global-scale plastic pollution. Yet products like steel and plastic can be reused, refurbished and recycled to capture untapped value.
2. Sounds like recycling. How’s it different?
The two ideas are connected, but they’re not the same. The phrase “circular economy” pops up in the work of a few resource economists dating back at least to the 1980s. Its use in recent years has come to connote an approach to the reuse of produced goods and materials that’s more systemic and ambitious than recycling. In nature, there is no waste because “everything is a resource for something else,” architect and green thought-leader Bill McDonough has written. Seventies-era recycling only takes you so far, activists and companies are concluding. For example, to maintain quality, plastic bottle makers need to blend recycled plastic with virgin material. A startup in Los Angeles called Replenish offers a line of cleaning supplies intended to reduce the need for plastic bottles in the first place. Cleaning agents are sold as pods to be inserted in reusable bottles that the consumer simply fills with water at home.
3. What are other examples?
Tire maker Omni United purposefully designed a new model of tire so that it could be reused to make the soles of Timberland shoes. The Carlsberg Group has launched an initiative to develop a biodegradable beer bottle. Taking the circular economy idea to a larger scale is the Kalundborg Symbiosis, a Danish ecological-industrial park that took shape during the 1970s and 1980s. There, companies use each other’s byproducts as resources. For example, the heat produced by machinery at the power station is used to warm a fish farm, whose sludge is sold as fertilizer.
4. Is anyone skeptical?
Yes. First, making a production cycle fully self-sufficient is virtually impossible. Some new input will always be necessary, and some waste will always be created. Recycling paper over and over, for example, produces paper of increasingly low quality. Eventually, it can’t be reused and new paper needs to be made. Also, building a circular economy can entail high upfront costs, for example to redesign a product or to switch from easily-obtainable resources to recycled materials. The U.K. estimates the cost of shifting to a circular economy to be around 3 percent of gross domestic product.
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