WHAT IS THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY AND WHERE DOES WASTE MANAGEMENT FIT IN?
The circular economy is a popular topic in waste management circles. In short, it is an economic system that works on a reuse and regeneration basis. From a waste management perspective, this means that the circular economy aims to eliminate the production of waste. This rose from the current economic model which involves raw materials being extracted, manufactured into products, and eventually thrown away as waste. This linear – or ‘take, make, dispose’ – economic model is highly resource intensive and not conducive to long term sustainability.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation highlights the three main principles that the circular economic model is based on:
- Eliminate waste and pollution.
- Circulate products and materials (at their highest value).
- Regenerate nature.
Waste is central to the push towards a circular economy. This push requires a shift in thinking. Waste can no longer be seen as ‘waste’, but rather as a resource. In a circular economy, efficient design and systems prevent products or materials from reaching their end-of-life. Instead, they become raw materials for other processes or are maintained and refurbished for their original use-case.
RECYCLING ECONOMY VS CIRCULAR ECONOMY
In waste management, the recycling economy is often confused with the circular economy. According to the 2023 Circularity Gap Report, only 7.2% of the global economy is circular. Currently, some waste products (mostly plastic and paper grades) flow into the recycling economy where they are usually shredded into a feedstock that can be used in the manufacturing of the same products, or new products entirely. The recycling economy differs from the circular economy in that most materials can only be recycled a few times before their quality declines and they can no longer be used. A circular economy aims to keep products and materials in use without degrading their quality or downcycling into lower valued products.
APPLYING SYSTEMS THINKING TO WASTE MANAGEMENT & THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
A move towards a circular economy requires an understanding of the way that systems (particularly waste management systems) interact, or could potentially interact, with each other. This requires systems thinking i.e. understanding the linkages and interactions between parts of a system that together result in the behaviour of the whole. Applying a systems thinking mentality is a key step towards a circular economy.
Although a circular economy is often visualised as a single circle, in reality the flow of materials does not follow a single loop. Materials and products flow continuously through concentric technical and biological cycles. The butterfly diagram (below) illustrates these concentric cycles of the circular economy system. When
FITTING YOUR WASTE MANAGEMENT INTO THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Improving design to not only eliminate waste, but also allow products and materials to circulate at their highest value is at the core of shifting towards a circular economy.
Currently, it is daunting to imagine a world in which we cannot simply throw away. It is challenging to think on a systems level, when your waste is only one part. However, any business can begin transitioning their waste management practices towards a circular economy by understanding the steps that can be considered before disposing of an item or material (demonstrated in the Figure 2 above):
DON’T WASTE PROMOTES A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
At Don’t Waste, our mission is to protect the environment. As we transition towards a circular economy, we at Don’t Waste aim to facilitate that movement by promoting the recycling economy and circular processes through responsible waste management. We aim to integrate our many years of waste management experience with a resource management outlook. Contact us for more information on how your business can promote the circular economy.
This Earth Month, we strive to help companies invest in their planet by promoting the circular economy. Our service offering is designed to help companies start their zero waste journey, boost their ESG performance, and recycle more all whilst following the waste hierarchy to maximise environmental benefits.
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