According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) (n.d.), a circular economy is defined as a system focused approach involving industrial and economic activities that are regenerative and restorative by design and function so that the resources being utilized can maintain their highest value for as long as possible with the goal to eliminate waste (US EPA, n.d.).
Our current system resembles a linear model where a product is designed, manufactured, and distributed, and once the lifetime of the product is finished, it turns into waste that is disposed of (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). The circular economy strives to have the opposite effect to this current system by ensuring that products are produced in the “cleanest” and most affordable way possible while guaranteeing that when the products will no longer serve their primary purpose, the materials/ parts of the products can be reused, recycled, or made into another product to serve another purpose (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). This would contribute towards eliminating waste and the probability of the products ending up in landfills (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.).
Three Principles of The Circular Economy (Adapted from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
- Eliminate Waste and Pollution
The first principle ensures that waste and pollution are reduced/ eliminated when manufacturing products. The manufacturing process of numerous products relies on the Earth’s natural resources as raw materials and is often accompanied by the generation of large quantities of waste. Given that the Earth’s natural resources are finite, the Circular Economy emphasizes the need to design and manufacture products that last for a long time, using processes that minimize waste and pollution (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.).
As an example, DyeCoo, a Textile Company in the Netherlands, incorporated a textile machine that can process up to 800 tons of polyester per year and results in saving 32 million liters of water and eliminating 160 tons of chemicals making it possible to dispose the wastewater from the manufacturing process into the natural environment (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). By doing this, the circular economy is being effectively applied to stop waste from infiltrating the wastewater systems in the country.
2. Circulate Products and Materials (at their highest value)
The second principle focuses on circulating products or materials in their most pristine condition. The aim of this principle is the need to create durable products and to keep these products in use for as long as possible, or to reuse their components in order to eliminate waste (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.).
The company Resortecs, a textile company, based in Belgium, created a dissolvable stitching thread to make discarding clothing items easier. The process of discarding garments is costly and complex. The stitching on each garment has to be removed before being thrown away. This thread not only eliminates waste but allows for parts of the clothing item “the material” to be reused for other clothing items/ purposes. Thus, this ensures that if the garment cannot be reused, it can be appropriately recycled (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.).
3. Regenerate Nature
The final principle is on regenerating nature; this allows for the regeneration of natural raw materials. This model aligns with how nature regenerates itself today. For example, when a leaf falls from a tree, it will feed into the soil, and thus no waste is produced (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). An example of a company applying this principle in their products is Ecoactive, a company based in the United Kingdom, makes compostable packaging from agricultural by-products (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.). This design ensures that when their products are delivered to the consumer, they can drop them in the forest or on their lawn to disintegrate into the soil, strengthening the environment. This prevents the generation of non-organic waste which takes long periods of time to disintegrate when disposed of in the environment, and which have more severe environmental impacts.
How is the Circular Economy Key for Sustainable Development?
Now that we know what the Circular Economy is, let’s take a look at the key role it plays in achieving sustainable development.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (International Institute for Sustainable Development, n.d.).
The circular economy is the key to sustainable development because it eliminates waste, supports the economy, and focuses on products that are designed with a positive impact on the environment (Earth5r, n.d.). This will guarantee that for future generations, there are enough natural resources for them to be supported. This approach will support the environment and local communities so that they can thrive through increased job opportunities. Job increases will be seen in sectors such as recycling services, and repair of manufacturing machines (Mc Ginty, 2020). The job opportunities reduce the amount of money that needs to be invested in new machinery and result in better health for society by reducing the number of aerosols emitted from machines that are not regularly maintained or emit an amount of greenhouse gases that cannot be regulated (Earth5r, n.d.).
Finally, switching to a circular economy approach creates a long-term value for the environment because of its ability to reduce pollution and waste infiltrating communities and waters (Earth5r, n.d.). Implementing this approach will effectively make all products and practices sustainable, thereby securing a clean and green environment for future generations.
Take Action (Adapted from the World Resources Institute)
- Buy responsibly. Choose environmentally friendly products, and packaging.
- Buy locally-sourced food! This is a great way to limit the amount of transportation and pollution when transporting food overseas.
- Try to limit how much garbage is being thrown away by finding ways to reuse different products, for example, returning milk bottles to the local grocery store or large water jugs to be refilled at your grocery store, etc.
“We do know that through pushing for the circular economy, we are able to change lives. We can never underestimate the power of the social impact that you’re achieving through the circular economy.” Stacey Davidson, Executive Director, REDISA
Circular Economy: How It Can Contribute to Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://earth5r.org/circular-economy-can-contribute-sustainable-development/
Circular economy principle: Circulate products and materials. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circulate-products-and-materials
Circular economy principles: Eliminate waste and pollution. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/eliminate-waste-and-pollution
Circular economy principles: Regenerate nature. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/regenerate-nature
Mc Ginty, D. (2020, July 6). 3 Ways to Transition Toward a Circular Economy | World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/how-build-circular-economy
Sustainable Development | International Institute for Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.iisd.org/mission-and-goals/sustainable-development
What is a circular economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview
What is a Circular Economy? | US EPA. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/recyclingstrategy/what-circular-economy