Circular Economy: an Introduction

If you read our newsletter last year, you are familiar with our monthly feature Get Out and Explore, where we visited different parks and outdoor spaces around Maryland. The goal of this series was to encourage people to get outside and share information about facilities and highlights of a particular spot.

Now that we’ve rung in the new year, we are going to have a new monthly series in the Heron Herald. This year’s series will focus on how we can participate in a circular economy, which is a concept we are introducing here. A circular economy is a system that keeps materials in use for as long as possible through sharing, repairing, and recycling to better eliminate waste and our dependence on new materials. The way our global economy is currently set up, only about 9% of materials are used in this way; the other 91% of items are produced new and then sent to the landfill when we are done with them.

As an environmental center, one thing we try to focus on is encouraging and helping people live more gently on the planet. This is because we believe reducing our impact is part of being a good steward of the Chesapeake Bay. Improving our participation in a circular economy is one way to be a better steward and we hope that you can incorporate this into your life in a way that makes sense for you.

We recognize that everyone is at a different place in their stewardship journey and that every person has different needs, wants, and lifestyles. However, reducing waste, reducing our consumption of new materials, and ensuring that the waste we do produce ends up in the right place are things we want to help people be better at.

So, we can think of participating in a circular economy using the old phrase; reduce, reuse, recycle.

It’s become very clear that recycling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as many items that are put in recycling, still end up in landfills. This is because without a demand for the recycled materials, no one is going to pay to process and use those materials, especially when raw materials are often cheaper. If you want to see recycling have more of an impact, try to purchase items that use recycled materials because this tells companies that this is important to us and encourages a more robust market for recycled materials. If there is no market for recycled materials, no recycling will take place.

This means that the Reduce and Reuse parts of the phrase are bigger ways to improve our personal environmental footprints.

One thing to realize is that every item you purchase has to come from somewhere. Those items are made from raw materials, which are not limitless. Technology has helped us increase production of many items – for example, the green revolution that improved agricultural production enough to keep pace with human population growth in the 1800’s. However, we will eventually hit a threshold beyond which we cannot produce more raw materials. This is where Reducing and Reusing come into play and ties into the idea of a circular economy.

By reducing how much we purchase, we are reducing the amount of raw materials required for us to live. This could be something as simple as recognizing needs vs. wants – do I need a new sweater when I already have several? Do I need a new vacuum cleaner when I have one that works just fine? The answer might be yes; all my sweaters are old and falling apart or are so threadbare they don’t keep me warm anymore. The answer might be no; my vacuum works just fine, I just want a newer model but I don’t actually NEED a new one. It might also be that things stop working and we don’t have the skillset needed to fix or repair that item – but someone else might.

This brings us to the Reuse part of the phrase and the idea of a circular economy. Can you pass on items that you no longer want or need, so that someone else can continue to get use out of them? Can you repair or find someone to repair items that have stopped working but still have some life left in them? Can you find new ways to use items that may be considered single use?

You may already participate in a circular economy without even realizing. Have you ever used a little free library to pick up a new book or pass on an old one? Have you ever donated clothing to a clothing swap or a second hand store? Have you ever shared overabundant produce from your garden with a neighbor? These are all ways that materials are passed on, rather than going to waste. This is what a circular economy is all about and this is what our monthly series will focus on.

From plant swaps, to the Baltimore Bookthing, to clothing swaps, to Repair Centers and more, we want to share different ways to participate in a circular economy with you. Each month, we’ll focus on a different way to engage in this concept and we encourage you to invite others to join us on this journey. 

Our new year’s resolution is to share more, use less, and support others on their stewardship journey.

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