When we start talking about sustainability, waste and systems in society, there are two terms you may have heard come up a few times: the idea of a linear economy vs a circular economy. But what if you don’t know what these terms actually mean? How can we understand what progress to work towards and what to move away from, if we aren’t quite sure what we’re talking about? Today I thought I’d shed some light on what these terms mean, and why they matter.

What is the linear economy?

Most of us will be familiar with the idea of a linear economy, as it’s what many of us have grown up surrounded by. In this model a raw material is taken, used to make a product, and after being used any waste is thrown away, for example the packaging it comes in. In other circumstances, the product itself is also thrown away after use. This is the single-use/disposable system. At times it can be necessary, for example with certain medical equipment to avoid contamination, but a lot of the time it is not needed, and is utilised for simple convenience, for example in the case of disposable coffee cups.

In the 1970s, architect Walter Stahel started to discuss how the linear economic model is not sustainable, and in 1972  the Club of Rome released a report called “Limits to Growth”, concluding the same thing. Stahel had the idea to reform the economy and close material cycles. This, alongside other philosphies such as the Cradle to Cradle design philosophy of William McDonough and Michael Braungart; the concept of biomimicry from Janine Benyus; and the blue economy systems approach described by Gunter Pauli, led to the concept of the circular economy (source). In 2009, Dame Ellen MacArthur founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation focused on educating and supporting circular economy efforts around the world. The EMF has since pioneered education and global implementation of circular economy principles.

So what is the circular economy?

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

The circular economy doesn’t have one solid definition, but generally it can be defined as a concept where growth and prosperity are separated from natural resource consumption and destruction of ecosystems. It requires gradually decoupling economic activity from consuming finite resources, and designing waste out of the system, instead rerouting used products, components or materials into the right value chains. A value chain is defined as all the steps that involve bringing a product from conception to distribution, for example raw materials, or manufacturing functions. This means that:

  • Raw materials from one industry can be reused endlessly, for example a modular phone that can be taken apart at the end of its life, and the parts reused to make a newer, regenerated version of the phone.
  • Waste materials are used as raw materials for other products, for example with Pela Case or Grunbag‘s models.
  • Wasted resources are used for other industries. For example, reservoirs that are built for drinking water also have to have compensation flow that allows rivers to keep flowing beyond the dam. They will usually install a hydroelectric turbine in this flow meaning that, while supplying drinking water, dams are also able to generate renewable energy from the water that isn’t being used.

A circular economy should effectively emulate the natural cycles of the earth, where waste doesn’t exist as a concept. As humans breathe out CO2 plants breathe it in and release oxygen for us to breathe once more. In this way it is a circle. The circular economy aims to close the loops we have created in our own systems in order to once again work like the rest of nature.

Overall, the circular economy is underpinned by renewable energy and based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

A simple definition: The circular economy is a regenerative system in which resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops; this can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, re-manufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production.

Achieving a circular economy

Most people also recognise that many systems need to change in order to achieve a circular economy. As reported by Arcadis and the EMF, the economic concept of a circular economy consists of four building blocks that companies need to apply:

Product design

This involves improvements in overall design and choices of materials to facilitate proper product reuse and recycling. This can look like standardising and modularisation of components to make disassembly of items easier and more efficient, so that components/materials can be reused or recycled. This also involves examining product life cycles and asking how they can be extended, asking how products should be carried, packaged and marketed, asking which materials should be excluded from product design, ensuring materials can be easily labelled for future recycling, and taking into account possible applications of by-products and wastes for your industry or another industry.

Enabling conditions

This focuses on the conditions enabling society to apply the circular principles. The application of circular principles requires increased transparency, incentivisation, and defining industrial standards, and it has to be supported by legislation, education, financing and more (for example, using legislation and subsidies to encourage companies to reuse existing materials, or Japan incentivising reuse by making their 2020 olympic medals from electronic waste). As well as the actual changes to become more circular, general public awareness needs to increase, and companies in various sectors need to communicate and share information in order to enable each other to work in circular ways, as modelled brilliantly by Pela Case’s model.

New business models

As well as changing materials and design, circular processes also require innovation in business models and structures of ownership. Manufacturers need to think differently about their products, take more responsibility for their life cycles (aka, no planned obsolescence to drive more linear consumption), and see the value in products that are designed for re-use. Business models need to shift to understand how used products can be made valuable again, how to offer services rather than finite products (for example, Wear The Walk provides a clothing rental service which allows clothes to be reused again and again, rather than constant new products made from raw materials), and how supply chains and sectors can collaborate to exchange resources in order to eliminate waste.

Global reverse networks

This focuses on the cycle from user to manufacturer, allowing manufacturers to collect materials efficiently from what already exists. Some examples include return schemes where products can be regenerated, such as Re-Tek’s work with electronics, or companies like Furnishare that keep furniture in circulation, and out of landfill, for longer.

Overall, organisations need to embed principles from the circular economy into their design, operations and approaches, and this needs to be backed up by awareness, education and legislation that incentivises circular models. As individual consumers we can contribute to the circular economy by buying secondhand whenever possible, or supporting companies that deliberately divert waste from landfill and use it to create useful products. Beyond this, we can continue to educate others on the circular economy, ask large brands and companies to adopt circular principles through work with the EMF, and ask our local policy makers to support green policies that encourage circular thinking.

To learn more about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their work, click here.