Why entering the circular economy benefits the Earth and your bottom line.
According to a 2018 report from The World Bank, by 2050, the world is set to produce 3.4 billion tons of waste per year — a drastic increase from the 2.01 billion tons global waste in 2016.
Not only is global waste slated to increase by over 50% in just a matter of 30 years— but the impacts on the environment would be detrimental.
One report found that as of 2015, of the 6.9 billion tons of waste produced, only 9% was recycled — with 79% heading to landfills or the environment, and another 12% being burned.
Already, numerous governments and agencies have warned that if drastic action is not taken, by 2030, the planet will be irreversibly damaged.
What can be done to protect the environment? How can brands, designers, agencies, and governments work together to prevent this irreversible damage from happening? How can valuable Earth systems and non-renewable resources be kept in use?
The answer is simple: circularity. With a circular economy, the Earth’s systems can be protected. Products can be kept in continuous use to last beyond a single lifetime by being made with a circular design.
Protecting the planet goes far beyond making sustainable products that don’t harm the environment. With a bit of creative thinking, design and innovation, designers and brand leaders can work together to help transition to a circular economy.
Circularity describes the different systems that have the goal of eliminating waste and pollution and keeping resources in constant use. This includes economic, environmental and technical systems.
In other words, circularity is a process ensuring that once a product is used by consumers, the item is then repurposed or recycled into other items rather than sent to a landfill. And then the circular process begins again.
Many people think of circularity and sustainability as being interchangeable. Although sustainability plays a large role in circularity, the two are slightly different.
Circularity is essentially the practice of intentional design. It’s how products and services are made, used, recycled and kept in that continuous loop. Sustainability is more focused on the Earth’s natural systems, and not causing harm to them.
The circular economy process includes:
Resources are Gathered
Both biological elements from the Earth and technical elements — like glass, plastic, and metal — are sourced and gathered.
Manufacturing and Production
Products and services are made. They are developed and created to be used for more than single use, or more than a lifetime. They’re made with elements that can be individually repaired or replaced. All the different materials can be repurposed, recycled or returned to the planet. As companies manufacture, they aim to have net-zero emissions at a minimum — but ideally will become a positive, regenerative source for the Earth.
The consumer uses the product or service. If an item wears over time, individual parts may be replaced.
Elements — and sometimes the whole product — are reused, recycled, repurposed, refurbished or returned to the Earth’s natural biological systems.
Then the process begins again, and it’s kept in a continuous loop.
Close the “loop” where waste is put into the environment.
Create items without waste or pollution.
Keep products in continuous use.
Repurpose, recycle and replenish all resources used in the manufacturing and production process, along with the product or services itself.
Make products and services that last well beyond a single use or a single lifetime.
In circularity, individual elements of items may be recycled and replaced to ensure there is zero waste. The elements that need to be replaced are turned into other products or services or returned to the Earth’s biosphere.
There is no waste and no pollution, and the planet’s natural systems are regenerated in the process.
A circular economy functions as a continuous loop, whereas a linear economy is more of a flat line with a beginning and end.
In a linear economy:
Items are made with a standard design, meaning they go from cradle to grave.
This means resources are gathered for a product or service, the items are made, use, and thrown away.
Items are designed for a single use.
Biological resources from the Earth are not replenished at the rate which they are used.
Items are made with a circular design
The product use cycle is continuous, and there is no waste
All elements and items are created to be recycled, repurposed or returned to the Earth’s natural systems
Items are constantly re-designed. Innovators are always working to find ways to make products and services more sustainable and last longer.
In a circular economy, businesses, governments and individuals all work together to implement circularity. The circular economy flourishes because everyone works together to keep the continuous design, use, recycling and replenishing of products going.
Let’s look at a cell phone as an example to see how circularity works.
A brand works with farmers and manufacturers and sources the biological and technical elements for the cell phone.
The phone is made and sent out to retailers or sold directly to the consumer.
The cell phone’s screen may be designed to have the glass recycled and replaced if it shatters. Other individual elements are made to be replaced after they break — rather than tossing out the device after the battery wears down or the screen cracks.
A consumer buys the phone and uses it.
Over time, elements of the phone may break or need to be replaced.
If the screen shatters or the battery goes bad, the consumer will replace just that part.
The glass or old battery will go back to the manufacturer, to another company or elsewhere where it will be recycled, repurposed or turned into another product.
The consumer keeps using the product, as only a small element needs to be repaired and it’s designed for continuous use.
If a phone truly reaches the end of its life, the consumer has a way to recycle it so all the elements of the device are recycled or refurbished into other products.
In this case, they may have a place where they work with the company and consumer to get the broken glass from the cell phone screen to be turned into other items.
They can help create programs and connect businesses so that different biological and technical elements are being replaced, refurbished and recycled.
Governments and other agencies can set up recycling and compost systems.
They can help establish systems so that there are accessible renewable energy resources for all businesses and consumers.
In a circular economy, everyone works together to keep circularity going. With this system, the planet can truly be protected, and waste and pollution won’t be harming the environment. It’s the ultimate form of sustainability — and goes above and beyond just not putting waste and pollution into the Earth’s natural systems.
A circular brand functions to preserve and replenish the Earth’s natural systems and connect with consumers who share a passion for that.
This provides many opportunities for companies, brand designers, and innovators to work together. It presents unique ways for brands to take elements and materials that may have been waste for one company, and turn them into a product that consumers can use.
Circular brands serve consumer needs while working together with farmers, manufacturers, other brands, and governments to innovate and use elements in the most efficient, planet-friendly way possible.
Circularity has numerous advantages. Not does circularity preserve valuable resources, keep the Earth’s systems going and help the environment — it also is a huge money saver for companies and governments.
If circular economic practices are adopted, it’s estimated that by 2025, it could save around $1 trillion each year.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a circular economy could result in $630 billion per year in cost savings for the medium-lived products sector in the European Union. It’s estimated that it could save $700 billion a year worldwide for fast moving consumer goods.
Not only does it present cost savings, but a report from IBM found that consumers who care about sustainability are also willing to pay a premium for sustainable products.
The report found that 77% of consumers want sustainable products, and roughly the same amount want recyclable items. Six in 10 consumers are willing to change their buying habits to purchase products that lessen their impact on the environment — and more than 70% of those that said they’d change their shopping habits said they would pay more for brands aimed at being sustainable.
Not only does circularity present benefits for the planet, but a circular economy also would help individual brands and the economy flourish.
When looking to move into the circular economy, companies can focus on a few key things.
Companies can reduce their consumption of sources — like the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh), along with nonrenewable technical resources, like natural gas, coal, and oil.
They can also transition into clean resources — like using solar or wind energy to run offices and factories — to consume fewer elements that can’t be replaced at the rate at which they’re used.
Companies can find ways to cut back on the waste they have.
Things like making product packaging recyclable or compostable, finding ways to clean water that’s used to dye fabric, and not letting off carbon emissions are all great ways for companies to cut back on their waste.
Replenish the Earth’s natural systems:
If your company uses trees or other plants, find ways to help replace those systems and help them flourish. These elements are much easier to replenish and regrow, and these resources can often be grown back at a much faster rate than technical elements can.
Share best practices with farmers, manufacturers, consumers, and others:
Your company can be a pinnacle of change. If your office facility is net-zero emissions but the factory you outsource to is not (or vice versa), that doesn’t mean your company is truly circular.
Help find ways for your factories to cut back on consumption and move into the circular economy with you. Or learn from and partner with other industry leaders.
If your packaging is compostable but consumers don’t know that, you don’t want them to end up in the landfill. If it’s in a landfill, it won’t contribute toward helping the Earth’s natural systems. Find ways to share this info with your consumers so you can all work together toward helping the circular economy flourish.