How can we move away from consumption and develop a circular economy in Western society? Look to the past.
The idea of a circular economy is novel to us in our current Western culture of purchase, consume and discard, but it is a system that would have seemed completely normal to anyone only a generation ago. Our parents and grandparents would have repaired and reused items simply because it was smart. It wasn’t called circularity; it was just what we did. You would repair an item because the replacement cost was higher than the cost to repair it. Items were more expensive because they were built to last – we didn’t have mass production of cheap goods flooding our markets. We never considered that we would just throw away a TV set when it was broken, but now we do. In just one person’s lifetime, we have turned our back on circularity and have fully embraced consumption.
The planet can’t take it. Escalating global climate events, worries of resource depletion, and overflowing waste streams all scream for a new (old) approach to consumption and production. In response, a circular consumption model has again emerged. This time as an innovative and sustainable alternative to the traditional linear model that has been polluting our planet for centuries.
At the heart of a circular consumption model is an economic system in which resources are recycled and repurposed instead of discarded after use. The goal is to keep materials and products in use for as long as possible. This creates a closed loop where resources are continually cycled back into productive use while reducing waste.
Compared to the existing linear consumption model, which involves extracting raw materials, manufacturing products, using them, and then disposing of them in landfills, we can develop a circular economy that offers a far more sensible approach to resource management.
When the two are compared, a few key distinctions become obvious:
- Waste reduction: A circular model reduces waste by employing renewable energy sources, decreasing packaging materials, and designing longer-lasting products. In contrast, a linear economy considers waste an unavoidable outcome of production and consumption, resulting in overconsumption and inefficient resource use.
- Material reuse: The circular model preserves material value by reusing items after their initial use. This is achieved through practices such as sharing, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling. On the other hand, the linear model focuses on extracting raw materials, which are transformed into finished products that are discarded after as little as one single use. A perfect example is the plastic beverage bottle – Nestle and Coke manufacture and sell bottles, not soft drinks and water.
- Job creation: The circular model requires a workforce skilled in repairing, recycling, and refurbishing products, making it more labour-intensive than the linear model. The linear model is highly automated and places a higher value on a new item over a repaired item.
- Resource conservation: The circular model aims to conserve resources by reducing consumption and energy use through more efficient production processes. Linear models assume that resources will always be available, leading to their overuse, waste, and, ultimately, depletion.
- Innovation-driven: The circular model fosters innovation by allowing companies to develop new products and services incorporating circular principles. A modern small business or solopreneur can use modern design and manufacturing methods to design an easily repairable, upgradable, or recyclable product, reducing waste and enhancing resource efficiency. Conversely, a business in the linear economy typically has significant sunk costs in large-scale production and therefore is less inclined to embrace new ideas and technologies, favouring existing products, systems, and practices.
Shifting to a circular economy means changes across all levels of modern society. Here are some steps that will help facilitate this transition:
- Education and awareness: Government funding for education and awareness-raising campaigns targeting various individual and corporate community members will be a crucial first step towards transitioning to developing a circular economy. Companies can educate their staff and customers about the principles of the circular economy.
- Policy reform: Governments can help develop a circular economy by creating policies to force the shift towards a circular economy, such as tax breaks for companies implementing circular practices or investing in green technologies. Policies mandating eco-design, responsible recycling, or replacing non-recyclable products with recyclable ones will be introduced.
- Financial incentives: Monetary incentives can play a vital role in the transition to develop a circular economy, such as subsidies for renewable energy, low-interest loans, and grants for circular economy start-ups.
- Collaboration among stakeholders – Collaboration will be essential to develop a circular economy. Governments, businesses, and civil society organizations must collaborate to set goals, develop strategies, identify opportunities, and jointly address difficulties.
- Technological development – Technological innovations such as automation, 3D printing, and blockchain are among the many technological advancements that can help facilitate the transition to developing a circular economy. For example, automation can make processes such as the disassembly and sorting materials more efficient. At the same time, 3D printing can reduce waste by allowing customized products to be produced in smaller batches. Blockchain technology, with its ability to track the lifecycle of products, can also help create more reliable and transparent closed-loop supply chains.
- Consumer Behavior – Consumer behaviour is another important aspect that will help to develop a circular economy. Consumers will be critical in adopting circular practices through purchasing decisions, lifestyle choices, and recycling habits. Educating consumers and creating market-based incentives can encourage people to choose products made with circular principles or adopt behaviours like recycling and composting.
Moving to develop a circular economy model is essential to achieve a sustainable future. The circular model offers significant economic, environmental, and social benefits and presents opportunities for innovation, job creation, and resource conservation. Transitioning from the current linear model to develop a circular economy requires action from all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, consumers, and society.
By working together and embracing circular principles, we can create a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world for future generations.