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Recycling 101: The Circular Economy

What It Is and How We Can Work Towards It

The world we live in today is centred around the linear economy – a “take, make, waste” model of production and resource usage. This uses resources faster than we are able to replace them, which contributes to biodiversity loss, limited resources, high prices, and literal mountains of waste that rot away in landfills across the globe.

Luckily, there is a solution – switching to a circular economy. While this is by no means a simple solution, it’s one that is already being embraced by businesses and governments around the world. In fact, elements of a circular economy are probably already present in your life – from using reusable containers and recycling to renting goods, you might not need all the time.

But what actually is a circular economy? How and why does it work? Let’s dig in.

What is a Circular Economy?

The circular economy is an economic system that is designed to be restorative and regenerative by nature. It aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, and then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their usable life. This approach is intended to reduce waste and pollution, and to provide long-term economic and environmental benefits.

A circular economy is built on three main principles:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution
  • Circulate products and materials at their highest value
  • Regenerate nature

Circularity should be driven by design, as a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach. Right now, elements like recycling and materials recovery are very much reactive. Still, in a circular economy, design and manufacturing would be implemented in a way that makes these aspects easier and more obtainable for businesses and individuals. The mindset of reuse and recycling is already there; we just need our systems to catch up.

Why is It Important?

The circular economy is important because it offers a number of potential benefits. For one, it can help to reduce waste and pollution by limiting the amount of stuff we throw in landfill. Businesses in a circular economy are incentivised to build durable products that last and implement end-of-life solutions for when they finally do break. This can help to protect the environment and to preserve natural resources by not taking more than we need, and using the old products to design new ones.

For another, it can decrease costs for consumers, businesses, and governments and create a new need for recycled materials – valuing them over raw, virgin materials. It’s good for people and the planet and would help fight economic strife.

Finally, a circular economy focuses as much on reuse as it does on regeneration. This means not only using materials over and over again but implementing systems that work to restore or revitalise the world around us. As an example, a circular economy emphasises regenerative agriculture through the use of natural fertilisers, crop rotations, and no-till methods which restore and repair damaged topsoil.

The Benefits of a Circular Economy

Some of the other potential benefits of the circular economy include the following:

  • Increased economic efficiency and productivity, as businesses and consumers are able to get more value out of the resources that they use
  • Enhanced competitiveness and innovation, as companies are encouraged to develop new business models and technologies that support the circular economy.
  • Improved resource security, as a more circular economy, can reduce our dependence on imported resources and increase our resilience to supply chain disruptions.
  • Greater social and economic benefits, such as the circular economy, can create jobs, reduce inequalities, and improve the well-being of communities.

How Does Recycling Play a Role in a Circular Economy?

Recycling is an important part of the circular economy, as it helps to keep materials in use for as long as possible. When we recycle products and materials, we are able to extract additional value from them. We also prevent them from being discarded and ending up in landfills where they rot away, releasing methane and potentially leaching chemicals into groundwater. This can help to reduce waste and pollution and to conserve natural resources.

What Can Individuals Do to Promote a Circular Economy?

We all have a role to play in promoting a circular economy. Individuals can promote a circular economy by taking a number of steps, such as:

  • Reducing your consumption and choosing products that are designed for durability and reusability or renting products that you might infrequently use (power tools, cars, bikes, formal wear, etc.).
  • Recycling and composting as much as possible, by participating in local recycling programs or creating your own compost.
  • Supporting local businesses and organisations that are working to advance the circular economy – you can use sites like the New Zealand Sustainable Business Network’s Circular Economy Directory to find sustainably-minded businesses.
  • Educating yourself and others about the importance of the circular economy and advocating for policies and programs that support it.

Not only are these great for promoting a circular economy, they generally are more cost and energy-efficient than non-circular products, saving you time and money.

What Can Businesses Do to Promote a Circular Economy?

Businesses can promote a circular economy by adopting practices and strategies that support the circular economy. This can include:

  • Designing products that are durable and can be easily repaired, refurbished, or recycled at the end of their life through product stewardship schemes.
  • Implementing waste reduction and recycling programs at the office or other work sites.
  • Collaborating with other businesses and organisations to develop circular supply chains and business models.
  • Investing in research and development of new technologies and approaches that support the circular economy.

By taking these steps, businesses can help to reduce waste and pollution, conserve natural resources, and create economic and social benefits for themselves and the communities in which they operate.

What Can Governments Do to Promote a Circular Economy?

While individual and business change can help lead the way for the circular economy, these actions will have the biggest impact if supported by government systems and incentives. Many governments have already initiated changes to promote the circular economy. These initiatives include:

  • Establishing goals and targets for waste reduction and resource conservation
  • Developing regulations and standards that support the circular economy, such as requirements for the use of recycled materials or the adoption of sustainable design principles
  • Providing financial incentives, such as grants or tax breaks, to businesses and individuals who adopt practices and technologies that support the circular economy
  • Investing in research and development of new technologies and approaches that support the circular economy
  • Educating the public about the benefits of the circular economy and encouraging individuals and businesses to support it.

Governments can help to create an enabling environment for the circular economy and can support businesses and individuals in their efforts to advance the circular economy.

The Wrap Up

Getting to a more circular economy is something that takes time and effort. It’s not something that happens overnight or naturally, but from individuals, businesses, and the larger community working together to implement long-term, sustainable, and circular solutions. The ultimate goal is to use our resources in a better, more efficient way and ensure we protect the environment from further harm while ensuring businesses and individuals thrive.

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