The Circular Economy: Round and Round It Goes

Last post, we went through a brief description of what Zero Waste is. Today's post is about the circular system and how it is a good solution to our current waste crisis.

At the moment we live in a take-make-waste linear industrial model. We take resources, make products and then throw them and their packaging onto landfill when they're of no more use. Whilst some products can be recycled, as mentioned in our last post recycling should be viewed as the final option not a solution.

The circular economy is based on three principals:

  1. Design out waste and pollution
  2. Keep products and materials in use
  3. Regenerate natural systems

Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy, the circular model is all about transforming the way we design and consume products. Instead of replacing products with newer versions, we should be able to replace components with the old part being returned to the manufacturer for other uses.

One way of thinking of the circular economy is to view one that already exists, which is nature. Plants grow, are consumed by other animals, which are consumed by bigger animals, which eventually die returning nutrients to the soil, which finally feeds new plant life, completing the circle. Anyone else have the circle of life song in their head right now?

Designing products to facilitate product reuse and recycling requires conscious and deliberate thinking in multiple areas including material selection, component standardisation, robust design, easy end-of-life sorting, reuse applications and waste reduction at all stages of the manufacturing processes.

There are many options, solutions, and tiers to the circular economy. Thinking from a biological perspective we can consider packaging. By providing compostable packaging materials we allow resources to break down to nature at the end of use. One tier up, we can consider packaging that is also recyclable. Above that, packaging that is returnable and refillable.

Of course, there is always more to consider such as carbon emissions and the supply of resources but by shifting our focus from our linear model towards circular we can test different ideas, rework those that fail, and refine successes. To extend on carbon emissions and supply of resources, we have to think about the bigger picture. Is packaging made from fast growing mushrooms locally grown in the UK a better option than recyclable paper from slow growing trees? On a global scale, are there enough trees in the UK to even consider paper packaging? We think mushroom is a better choice.

Taking on another example, let's consider an oak table. Currently, such a product is likely to end up on landfill. Instead, in a circular economy it could be reworked into chipboard. That in turn at the end of it's life could be composted which can then be used as fertiliser for growing new trees, completing the cycle.

Looking at things that don't biologically decompose such as buildings, electronics etc the circular economy requires a complete redesign, sometimes at a global economic level. Taking the washing machine as an example, instead of replacing your machine at the end of it's life, what if you could just replace every individual component and the machine was designed to detect the problem for you? To some extent, you currently can replace some components with most models but they're limited. They also generally have no secondary use. What if instead of just replacing drums, you can upgrade certain parts as they release more economical washing cycles? If every part of every electronic item we have in our lives, from phones to computers were easily replaceable and designed to be long-lasting we would be using resources in the most optimal way possible. In fact, those of you who are more technical will know you can do that with custom made computers, it just requires specialist knowledge.

Financially, you might not think it would make sense for companies - they make more money by selling products than parts and many products are purposely designed to not last for that exact reason. But, if instead of owning items what if we just licensed them? At first that sounds awful. As consumers we would be paying subscriptions for every product we own. But if companies considered the amount of savings they would make these could in theory be highly profitable but also cheap for consumers. With subscriptions, we could have things like software upgrades automatically, for everything. We could move homes without having to worry about bringing appliances. We could save money on our energy bills, as product updates find new ways to save electricity.

To summarise, the circular economy values products, components and materials at their highest value and utility at all times. There is a huge amount we haven't covered here but hopefully we have got you interested enough to learn more about how our economy will hopefully be revolutionised in the future. You can find more information and some real-life case studies here.

At Tecorra we are constrained by small budgets in comparison to larger brands. We currently focus on the biological side - making sure products we stock are made from sustainable materials and packaged (when necessary) in compostable or recyclable materials. This is not where we see ourselves in a few years however. With your support, we will work through the different levels of the circular economy and keep improving our sustainable delivery of products to you. By consciously considering our future and planning ahead we will make a difference.

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