While ordering a fresh orange juice for lunch or flushing toilet paper through the loo, most of us do not really think of the destination of the waste we are creating by doing so. The same holds for more bulky products, such as electronic devices and plastics. What happens to these orange peels, fibres, batteries, and plastic packaging appears to be none of our concern, or simply said: we do not really care about the waste that we produce. Currently we are living in a linear economy in which we ‘take, make, and dispose’. Especially the last phase of this linear economy is problematic. We dispose a lot, and it must be no surprise to you that this leads to huge amounts of waste. By now, we are all aware of the fact that our oceans are turning into a ‘plastic soup’ that will expectedly contain more plastic than fish by 2050. And by just doing our daily business, we are thus damaging the environment. That is also why many entrepreneurs, foundations, NGOs and even governments are now trying to change our economy from a linear to a circular one. But what is this circular economy, and is it reasonable to think that such a transition will be made in the following decades if big companies are still producing plastics instead of reusing what has already been made?
In a circular economy resources are kept in the production cycle by reusing materials rather than sending them to the dump after first use. It is a regenerative system in which waste, emissions and energy leakages are minimized by recycling, maintenance, and long-lasting design. Products are being made, used, and returned. By returning products to their producers, a lot of materials can be reused. This is not only a matter of recycling, but also of ownership. It is proposed that certain products are not the property of its users, but of its producers. After the use of a product, all materials are thus taken care of. If the companies feel responsible for the products they sell, even after their use, the resources will not be dumped, but used again. Producers of electronic devices in this way do not have to buy new resources to generate new products, but can reuse the materials from previous sold products instead. A good example of a company that is already trying to do this is Philips Lighting. The company states that it is not selling products that provide light, but that it is selling light. Consumers buy light, and the lightbulbs that provide this light belong to the company. If any of these lightbulbs breaks, it is up to Philips to repair and replace it. By taking back the physical product, Philips Lighting can make sure to keep the materials that are still usable, and so prevent the lightbulbs from becoming waste.
In fact, in a circular economy, people are only paying for what they actually use. This leads to an incentive for the producers to deliver high-quality products. This incentive will in turn lead to smarter and long-lasting designs, because the maintenance of the product is part of the product that the producers are selling. According to Philips Lighting, it’s a win-win-win: consumers are better off, since they pay for the use of a service, and not so much for the physical product; the environment is ‘better off’, since there is less waste; and producers are better off, because their production depends less on the natural resources that becoming scarcer and more expensive.
Besides changing the entire way of business, finding new ways to use our waste is also a very good way to make the transition. Two interesting examples are the use of cellulose from used loo roll for bike lanes (by the Dutch Cirtec), and the use of orange peels for soap and energy (by the cooperation of PeelPioneers and Bee Blue). What is so nice about these two initiatives, is that the resources that are used would otherwise have been burnt (resulting in lots of unnecessary produced CO2).
More and more companies, entrepreneurs and governments are taking the transition to a circular economy seriously. For example the Dutch government selected five economic sectors that will be the first to switch to a circular economy (biomass and food; plastics; manufacturing industry; construction sector; consumer goods). Together with the European Union, the Dutch government is aiming to encourage companies to focus on sustainability, and change the production process. An example of an action that has already been taken is the ban on giving away plastic bags. Retailers may not give away any plastic bags to their customers, but have to charge them instead. Since this ban has been introduced, there has been a severe decrease in the use of plastic bags. According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, a circular economy will be achieved by 2050.
Despite many initiatives, the transition from a linear to a circular economy is not easy. As mentioned before, the whole production cycle has to change and especially producers have to take the lead in this. If this is not happening fast enough, government intervention is desirable. This is already happening in some countries within the European Union, so hopefully other countries are to follow. We are running out of natural resources, so we have to make sure that we use what we already have in the products that we want to create. We can make bike lanes and bottles from used toilet paper, soap from orange peels, and new electronic devices by using the old ones: our waste is not as useless as we think. We know how to do it, the only thing that has to happen is that we use our knowledge to make the change.
Check out this video by the Ellen McArthur Foundation for a clear overview of the circular economy.