If you’ve heard the term “circular economy,” you probably know that the system’s goal is to make waste virtually nonexistent. The name describes its meaning – a circular economy is a closed loop system where a product is made and reused until its true end of its life. This is very different from our society’s linear system where products are made, used, and then disposed of.
For example, consider a pair of jeans that have recently ripped. Nowadays, mending jeans has almost become a best-case scenario. In a linear system, those ripped jeans would get donated or landfilled and a new pair of jeans would be purchased. However, a circular economy would have a vastly different approach: the denim from the old jeans could be collected and re-purchased by manufacturers who would use the material to make more jeans. With a more environmentally-friendly approach, a circular economy sounds promising! However, circular economies are challenging to instill.
For starters, a true circular economy has no waste. Zero waste generation is already difficult for individuals, let alone on larger scales. Additionally, the quality of some materials deteriorate as they are remade, like plastics. A circular economy would move away from convenient products and toward products with longevity. Finally, circular economies often come with a large upfront cost. Transitions within companies may require a change in supplier and/or infrastructure. Still, a 2015 study found that a circular economy could be worth $4.5 trillion by 2030 if businesses prioritized “circular supplies, resource recovery, product life extension, sharing platforms, and product-as-a-service.”
Despite a few potential challenges, many companies see the value in moving toward a circular economy. Here are some examples of circular economy approaches that large companies are using now:
- Reusable Packaging for Everyday Items: As many companies focus on making their products more “environmentally friendly” by incorporating recyclable packing, others are flipping that model on its head. By making the conscious decision to package products in reusable containers, businesses ensure that their packaging will continue to be in use. There are even companies that put products from well-known brands that we already love and trust – from a favorite ice cream brand to a beloved haircare brand – into reusable containers! When the product is empty, consumers send the container back to be cleaned and either request a refill or are refunded the deposit. Companies like this set the precedent for making widespread reuse possible for modern brands.
- Focusing on Repair: Other companies are popularizing sustainable material use by focusing on “repair” instead of “replace.” These organizations showcase a closed loop system by fixing old and/or worn items from their brand. Despite being able to capitalize on those seeking to buy new items to replace their old gear, there are some companies choosing to minimize waste by mending fabric that is already in existence. These companies extend the lifecycle of their clothing by giving store credit for old or broken textiles, mending the items, and reselling them at a discount.
- Innovative Reuse: Yet another approach to closing the loop is to think outside the box: how can old materials be made into a completely different item? Look no further than the tech industry, where brands are trying to reduce electronic waste with innovative ideas. From “pollution printer ink” made of soot from diesel generators to a jewelry collection made using gold recovered from old laptops, the circular economy approach shows that we can create value from materials that already exist, without having to add many new resources!
Manufacturers play a large role in moving toward a circular economy, but consumers can also help by changing our everyday habits. Recycling is a step toward closing the loop, but we can do even more! To most efficiently use materials, we should try and limit our own waste and support businesses working to do the same.