Can a Circular Economy Save The Planet?

Most products we use are not made with their end of life in mind. As an example, my takeout order from last night arrived in a plastic and Styrofoam package that will take 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Proponents of the circular economy ask a simple question: wouldn’t we all be better off if we designed things with a circle in mind?

What is a circular economy?

A producer designs a product with an eye to what will happen when the consumer is done with it. Will it get thrown in a landfill to rot forever or are there ways we could recycle, reuse, or redeploy the product or its components? Can we make it last longer so we don’t have to make as many? Once we toss it, can we make it easier to break down?

How does a circular economy affect carbon emissions? 

Shifting to 100% renewable power generation can only address 55% of the carbon emissions in the global economy. The rest comes from making the cars, clothes, and food we use, wear, and consume on a daily basis. A recent paper estimates that designing for a circular economy in the cement, aluminum, steel, plastics, and food sectors can eliminate half of the emissions from the manufacturing sector. This is done via core principles that include designing out pollution and waste and keeping products and materials in use.

Step 1: Design Out Waste

100 years from now our descendants may shake their heads at how we currently design products. Sure, our computers are great, but they are designed to be used for two or three years and then tossed into a hole in the ground. What a waste of money and resources. Dozens of big corporations agree. Dell Computer has announced several “moonshot” goals for 2030, which include moving to 100% recycled and recyclable packaging, sourcing 75% of all energy for data centers, and manufacturing plants from renewables, eliminating all toxic components where possible, and instituting a comprehensive computer recycling system. 

MxG Fiber plans to convert miscanthus grass into food containers that can be recycled. Elon Musk recently talked about moving toward a more circular life cycle in its Tesla batteries by shifting to more sustainable inputs and reusing spent components in new batteries. Loop is designing reusable packaging in which it sells many of our everyday products, including shampoos, soaps, soft drinks, and household cleaning packages. 

Step 2: Keep Products In Use

It’s no secret that Apple designs your iPhone to be obsolete in three years. In 1924 a cartel of big lightbulb manufacturers, including General Electric, Osram, and Philips, agreed to keep lifetimes of their products to 1,000 hours or so, down from an average of 2,500 hours, in order to sell more of them. While this bolsters corporate profits, it is wasteful for the planet. 

Circular economy proponents assert that if we built our products to last longer, to be more easily repaired (locally, without having to send them back), it would not only reduce landfill crowding but eliminate the carbon emissions from having to make the same product over and over when one would do just fine if it lasted longer. Patagonia made waves with their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad campaign, encouraging customers to buy only what they needed, and repair and use what they already had while reminding them about lifetime warranties for some of their products.

Another big movement is to turn products into services, and ownership into access. Do I really need to own a car or should I just ride with Lyft or eCarra’s Tesla fleet? Their vehicles can provide transportation for me and dozens of others on a given day. Danish company Circos is offering a leasing program for children’s clothes that every parent knows are much loved, but expensive and typically tossed out after the last hand me down. 

Step 3: Recycle, Reuse, Return to the Environment

Another way to keep product components moving in a circle is to reuse them. Timberland is using recycled auto tires for some boot soles. Dozens of companies are working on converting wastewater into plant fertilizer. 

More than 300 million tons of plastic products are made every year and less than 10% is recycled. Around 10 million tons of these plastic bags, water bottles, takeout containers, and straws end up in the ocean every year. Some get consumed by the fish, reptiles, and birds in and around the water, endangering these species. Much of it also ends up in massive floating piles called gyres that degrade the bio-cycle of the oceans’ ecosystem. Recycling plastics involves expensive gathering and sorting systems that can often be cost-prohibitive. Smaller single-use plastics including straws can’t be recycled at all, making the case for the reusable FinalStraw.

But short of stopping single-use plastics altogether, we need other options. Nexus Fuels is taking certain types of plastics and thermochemically converting them into high-grade fuels like gasoline and kerosene. Sapporo has been converting used plastics to light oils for 20 years through a process called liquefaction. 

What is the economic impact of a circular economy?

The Economist points out that critics of closing the loop of circularity worry that “it can ring-fence parts of economy from globalization…but it can also be an unintended consequence. New repair shops would by their nature be more local.”  

Those who argue that reducing the lifecycle of items will cause damage to the companies that make them are making the same argument that fossil fuel companies make for their own survival. As COVID-19 has taught us, we simply can’t rely upon China to manufacture all of our hospital equipment, medication, and masks. If we want reliable supplies, especially in times of upheaval, we are going to have to produce much of it closer to home and make it all last longer. Making our economy more circular could make it more resilient to shocks like we’ve seen recently while having a positive impact on the planet. 

Read more Nexus Insights.

Tim Callahan
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