Embracing the Circular Economy

In this month’s discussion of a circular economy, we’re going to talk more about why moving to a circular economy is important and look into businesses and practices that are embracing this concept.

So first, as a reminder, a circular economy is one that is based on keeping products in use for longer, to reduce waste and the amount of virgin materials used. It’s also about creating products that use less virgin material and more recycled material and are easy to be recycled and reused. Again, the idea here is that as of 2023, only about 7.3% of all materials are recycled and the other 92.3% ends up as waste – the circular economy strives to flip those numbers [1].

First, the harvest of raw materials, such as lumber, rare earth minerals, and more, is resource intensive. It takes a lot of energy to produce these materials – more than it takes to recycle and reuse them. Keep in mind, not only do you have to harvest the materials, you must then get them to the factories where they will be turned into other products. In a circular economy, the materials already exist in circulation, so there’s no need to harvest them. There may also be the added benefit that recycling and production are taking place within the communities where the products are being used, rather than production taking place overseas.

Second, as already discussed, the goal of a circular economy is to reduce the amount of materials that end up in a landfill. Unfortunately, in our current economy, it is cheaper to harvest virgin material than it is to recycle the material already in circulation. However, this is because of government subsidies, poor recycling practices, and the fact that the cost of harvesting these materials does not factor in externalities. Externalities are the indirect cost of something, not included in the price of that thing. For example, the emissions from combustion engines are externalities; they release carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, and carbon monoxide, among others. However, the cost of cleaning up these pollutants is not paid for at any point in the creation or usage of the fuel, nor are the health impacts of the increased concentrations of these pollutants. These costs are typically paid by private consumers or the government. If externalities were factored into the cost of fuel, we’d likely see a stronger push for electrification and alternative modes of travel. The same can be said for encouraging the transition of a circular economy.

In the case of climate change, these externalities are becoming more and more expensive. Currently, the increasing level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is causing drier and hotter summers in the western US and warmer, wetter summers in the east. In the west, this is leading to more intense and more frequent drought as well as more wildfires, with many of them being more intense/larger than in the past. In the east, this is leading to more frequent and intense storms including hurricanes, shifting habitats for plants and animals, and even an increase in diseases such as tick and mosquito borne illnesses and crop pestilence [2]. All this is to say that we should be working as a global community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the effects of climate change. One way to support this is to embrace the concept of a circular economy. Some studies suggest that embracing a circular economy in only some production areas (food, plastics, steel, cement, and aluminum) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49% [3]

Third, the estimates for the value of materials currently in landfills is absurdly high. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, looking only at e-waste (electronics), we throw away $62 billion dollars worth of materials every year [4]. EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. Those are billions of dollars that could be shifted to harvesting less raw material and creating jobs in recycling and production.

All told, globally, we produce about 2 billion tons of solid waste every year and that is projected to increase to 3.4 billion by 2050 [5]. Estimates suggest that 44% of that includes organic and food waste, 17% paper, and 14% plastic. Through the circular economy model, including proper recycling and reduction of waste in these materials alone, we could drastically reduce the amount of solid waste we produce.

So, how do we support businesses and practices that are already working towards a circular economy?

Some businesses are embracing the refill model, by creating packaging that is designed to last and that can be refilled over and over. This includes companies like Loop and Plaine Products that use aluminum containers for products. Each time you purchase with them, you can request a return label to return empty bottles, which get sanitized and refilled. Here in Talbot county, you can find this concept locally, at Agave Arts Juice Company. You can purchase a variety of fresh, cold-pressed juices packaged in glass bottles and when you’re done with your juice, you can return the bottle to be sanitized and reused.

Other companies, like Dropps or Blueland, provide hand soap and cleaning agent dispensers and, after your initial purchase, all you need is to purchase refill pods or tabs, which come in cardboard packaging. Simply reconstitute with water and you have a full container. This style of refill also comes with the added benefit of reduced shipping costs and fuel because the refills are small and relatively lightweight. Other companies, like Dr. Bronner’s, have carton refills of materials, but these are typically already reconstituted.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a grocery store with a bulk food section, you can even find products like flour, sugar, nuts, and grains available to put in your own containers. This might include stores like Whole Foods, MOM’s, local co-ops and health food stores, or even regular grocery stores depending on your state. In many of these stores, you can fill paper bags with these items. In some stores, you can even bring in your own reusable glass or plastic containers to fill.

Terracycle is a company centered around reducing waste through a robust plastic recycling program, which now includes the ability to purchase items made from the collected materials. Many other companies focus on a specific product made from waste products, such as Rothy’s which turns plastic water bottles into footwear, Looptworks which turns scrap and waste fabric into purses and bags, or Rareform which turns old vinyl billboard ads into bags.

One thing to keep in mind, while it is great to purchase things that are made from recycled materials, materials made from plastic will still shed microplastics. This is a particular problem for items that get washed frequently, so we recommend staying away from clothing that is made from synthetics, even recycled synthetics. This is because the process of washing typically causes these materials to shed a large volume of microplastics, which end up in our waste water system and are ultimately released through effluent. This is because we’ve only recently become aware of microplastics and the technology to remove them from waste water has not become widespread.

While not mainstream, there are many companies out there that are embracing the circular economy model. If we want to see more, we need to encourage and support the ones that exist by purchasing from them, spreading the word that they exist, and supporting them in other ways, such as following them on social media. If you know of other companies that fit into the circular economy model, share them in the comments!

References:

[1] https://www.circularity-gap.world/2023

[2] https://toolkit.climate.gov/regions/northeast

[3] https://climatepromise.undp.org/news-and-stories/what-is-circular-economy-and-how-it-helps-fight-climate-change

[4] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/10/7-surprising-facts-to-know-about-the-circular-economy-for-cop26/