Historically, human beings have developed our productive activities based on natural resources. At first, we extract materials from nature, then we have converted them into products that go to a market, we consume them and finally we discard them. This process can be synthesized under the formula: resource-extraction-product-consumption-residue. On the other hand, in a circular economy, waste is seen as a new resource, which is introduced as a new element on the market, recovers its value and closes the line in a circle or loop. This process can be expressed as follows: resource-extraction-product-consumption-resource-ad infinitum.
Although it is a new concept, the circular economy is based on the first law of thermodynamics – nothing is created or destroyed; everything is transformed—and in natural cycles, in which waste does not exist and all elements are, after all, energy that passes from one state to another. The circular economy is a systematic solution approach that addresses global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution. In addition, it takes as a fundamental pillar the transition to renewable energies and materials. This model disarticulates economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and offers a resilient and robust system for business, people and the environment.
But how do you achieve a circular economy? According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an entity with 12 years of experience in researching and promoting a new development model under the circular economy approach, this system is achieved by putting three principles into practice: eliminate waste and pollution, recirculate products and materials, and regenerate nature.
The first principle is clear, if there are residuals, there is a design error. Many products on the market are designed to be disposable, for example, some elements made of multi-materials, such as coffee wrappers, which make it practically impossible or extremely expensive to recycle, reuse or compost them.
It is important to leave behind the mentality of the garbage to the dump and take nature as a source of wisdom. In it, there is no wasted element or residue present and everything is used and recirculated in a perfect balance. If the productive sectors took nature as their teacher, they would come to design circulation systems for materials and services, lowering their operating costs and even increasing income in their value chain. By improving the design of products and services, maximizing resources and reducing waste, not only an efficient system is created economically, but also environmentally and socially.
The second principle of the circular economy is to keep materials within the value chain, either as a product or as a raw material, for the creation of new elements. In this way, the value of the resource is maintained and the perspective of garbage or waste is changed.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, products and materials can be kept in circulation, according to two fundamental cycles: the technical and the biological. In the technical cycle, products are reused, repaired, remanufactured and recycled. In the biological, biodegradable materials are returned to the earth through processes such as composting and anaerobic digestion.
Benefits of regenerating
The third principle of the circular economy is to regenerate nature. By moving from a linear take-make-waste economy to a circular economy, we support natural processes and leave more room for nature recovery and conservation.
A circular and regenerative economic model is based on emulating the natural cycles of transformation, in which balance reigns. It is easy to think of a regenerative system if we consider that the composition of a banana peel used for composting, for example, re-enters the soil cycle and re-incorporates organic matter and nutrients. Those nutrients will be food, both for plants and for the populations of microorganisms that keep the soil healthy and fertile.
On the other hand, by keeping products and materials in use, the technical cycle influences a regenerative production model that presents less demand for virgin material and reduces the need for extractive activities.
As we gradually decouple economic activity from material extraction and keep elements in circulation, more land will be returned to nature. In an ideal circular economy, the land devoted to sourcing materials would increasingly focus on renewable resources, regeneratively farmed, rather than the extraction of finite materials. All of this would be supported by a transition to 100% renewable energy and infrastructure designed for reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling.
How to start?
What will it take to transform our throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources circulate, and nature regenerates?
It is important to emphasize that, although putting the circular approach into practice is not very difficult, it can be complex depending on each country and culture. It is recommended to start from the local and then scale to the global. This means starting with small actions within each of the households, observing the type of personal and family consumption.
For this, every time we go to acquire a product or service, it is recommended to carry out a self-examination guided by a series of questions: How much waste is being produced when buying a certain product? Where are they going? Can something be done with them? Is it really necessary to purchase this? Can it be fixed? Can it transform into something new? Is there someone who can take advantage of it? How was it produced or obtained? For whom?
The answers to these questions will give us a clearer idea of the type of product and/or service that we intend to consume, if it comes from an ethical and sustainable origin and what kind of impact is created by discarding it after its use.
Circular economy, an inclusive and green development model
The circular economy gives us the tools to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together, while addressing important societal needs. It empowers us to increase well-being, employment and resilience while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution. It covers a myriad of topics, problems and opportunities. Much more than a way of producing, it is a perspective of life. One capable of imagining a fairer society, a more ethical and responsible consumption, and a healthier and more inclusive environment.