What Is a Circular Economy and Why Is It So Important?
You’ve probably heard the term “Circular Economy,” but do you know what it actually means? This term relates to how we use and dispose of materials, whether that’s the packaging that the items you buy come in or the products themselves.
Once we’re done with a product, we often throw it in the garbage where it is destined for a life in the landfill or, even worse, in our environment, where it can harm species, habitats, and entire ecosystems.
With the 2020’s being named the Ocean Decade, we need to pay attention to the circular economy. It just might help us get out of the mess we’ve made of our environment! Before we dive into the importance of this economic model, let’s first talk about where we are currently.
Circular Economy VS. Linear Economy – What’s The Difference?
When it comes to getting rid of products or materials that are at their “end-of-life,” there are two types of “economies” to consider.
This seems to be where we currently are, but it’s not doing us or our planet any favours. In a linear economy, the product is manufactured, packaged, shipped, and sold to the consumer. Then, once it has fulfilled its purpose and is no longer of value to the consumer, it is discarded.
Because many items either lose their value after extended use or are made of mixed materials that are difficult to sort for recycling, much of what we buy ends up in a landfill. A great example of this is single-use beverage cups, like your coffee cup.
A circular economy shares the same beginning steps of the linear economy, but instead of the product reaching a landfill at the end of its life, it is instead repurposed so that it can be used continuously. A circular economy is one that promotes the 6 R’s; Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair and lastly, Recycling when no other options are present. With a circular economy, products are meant to have an infinite lifespan, rather than single or limited-use.
Why Is a Circular Economy Important For Our Environment?
As humans, we tend to favour the most convenient and cost-effective options. Unfortunately, this expectation for and reliance on quick and cheap access has made us dependent on single-use items. Because these items are meant to be thrown out, they are typically made as inexpensively as possible from inexpensive, lightweight plastic and mixed materials. These plastics are rarely recyclable.
Think about how many items you use in your day-to-day life. How many items are single-use? How many can be used infinitely? Tally them up, and even the most eco-conscious consumer will realize just how many single-use items make their way into our lives. They are, at times, completely unavoidable.
Less than 9% of the world’s plastic that is produced actually gets recycled. This is a staggering statistic, especially combined with other statistics that paint a better visual, like one dump truck of plastic entering our oceans every single minute.
Worse still, plastic itself doesn’t actually ever go away (even those pesky plastics labelled as “compostable,” “biodegradable,” or “bioplastics”). Over time, plastic continually weakens and breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics. Smaller than five millimetres in length, we may not always see them. But microplastics have become pervasive in our environment, with many animals ingesting them, even microscopic species at the bottom of the food chain.
WHAT WOULD A CIRCULAR ECONOMY LOOK LIKE?
A circular economy favours reusing products over creating new ones. This was a focus many decades ago before plastic became such a popular material. A circular economy today would have less disposable packaging and more reusable packing, for example, shops that allow you to bring your own container, fill it up with what you’re looking for, and pay for the amount you’ve purchased. Under circular principles we would repair what we have instead of throwing it out and re-buying it new.
How many times have you thrown out a pair of worn or broken shoes e and bought a new pair instead of fixing what you have?
Like with anything else, there is always a drawback. In the case of a circular economy, the main one that stands out is the cost. Because a circular economy is still a relatively new concept, there are often significant charges on businesses to shift towards circular principles—whether that means switching plastic for more recyclable materials like glass or aluminum or adopting a fully package-free model where consumers bring their own containers. These swaps are not always simple, and complicated logistics aside, cost is often the number one deterrent to circular principles.
For individuals, the same could be said. Adopting circular principles in your day-to-day life often involves an upfront investment. Maybe you’ve decided to purchase stainless steel straws to replace free plastic straws on the go. because you’re doing your shopping package-free, which typically comes with a higher charge because it’s still catching on. The good news is that the more we support reusable culture, the more widespread and affordable it will become.
How to Introduce Circular Principles in Your Day-to-Day Life
The 6 R’s are truly the key to success when it comes to adopting circular principles in your day-to-day life.
Here’s a quick rundown on how to Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle:
Look around at the items you possess. How many are plastic, or worse, single-use plastic? Is there a better alternative for them? Are some of these items even necessary?
When rethinking plastic, it is important to ask yourself if the item is worth all of the time and resources that went into the manufacturing of it in comparison to its lifespan. For example, that single-use, plastic-lined coffee cup? No way. Try supporting coffee shops that will fill your reusable cup—they usually give you a discount too!
We’ve all been there. We treat ourselves to some Uber Eats only to be left with a pile of sauce packets, single-use cutlery, tons of packaging, etc. How do you avoid that? By being crystal clear with your ask. Unfortunately, the standard right now is to give people everything they could possibly need. But is that necessary?
Businesses will never know what we as consumers want unless we tell them. I suggest getting very comfortable adding in your delivery notes things like: “Please use as little packaging as possible” or “I don’t need cutlery”. You can even call the shop to follow up and make sure they see your note. This is one simple example that can easily be applied in your life! Additional fan favourites are “I’ll have a (drink), no straw please!”, “I don’t need a bag!”
Minimalism is so in right now. Following the theme of “rethinking”, this is a critical step in eliminating waste. Not only does it feel so much better to eliminate clutter in your life, it is also better for your wallet! If the item is made of mixed materials or single-use plastic especially, and if it isn’t an absolute must-have, avoid it if you can!
If your cell phone broke, would you fix it or buy a new one?
Unfortunately, most products made in our current economy are not made to last. Because of planned obsolescence, a scheme to get you to consume more and spend more money, items today have a shorter lifespan. This also means that repairing items costs just as much, if not more, than buying new ones.
With recent “Right-to-Repair” legislations being passed, we are hopeful to see a shift towards repairing products to maintain their lifespan. While these legislations generally apply to technology and cars, there is nothing holding you back from repairing other items, like clothing, shoes, or household items, instead of tossing them for something new! When making a new purchase, consider its lifespan and repairability. Oftentimes, it may cost more to go with better quality up front, but it will save you money in the long run!
This is where it gets fun! What do you have around your house that can be given a new lease on life with a little creativity? There are so many ways to reuse what you currently own. Before you buy new products, look around with your newly trained “Rethink” eye, and see what’s possible. A personal favourite is reusing plastic and glass jars for things like bulk shopping, storage, planters, and kitchen organization!
Lastly, we arrive at recycling. It is important to keep in mind that while an item may appear to be recyclable, most plastics are not recycled for a variety of reasons. If you’re deciding between a single-use item or a recyclable item, of course, it makes sense to favour the recyclable one!
However, you need to know your municipal recycling rules in order to recycle effectively, as they do vary significantly. When making a decision between types of recyclable packaging or products, knowing your local waste management rules will help fuel your decision.
Additionally, it’s good to keep in mind that clear, rigid plastics have a higher recyclability rate than your rigid, brightly coloured plastics (like laundry detergent containers or shampoo bottles).
Adopting a circular economy will require everyone to make changes. While these changes may seem overwhelming at first, simple actions like supporting businesses focused on circularity or refusing unnecessary plastics add up to big change. You may even inspire others along the way.
Mind Your Plastic is here to help you in your journey! Mind Your Plastic is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to eliminating plastic pollution in Canada. We are actively working alongside public policymakers, Canadian businesses and recyclers to push for circularity in our economy with a focus on reusability.
You can do so much on an individual level to get involved in this issue! Begin with changes in your day-to-day life. They can be as simple as bringing your reusable bags, cutlery, cups, etc. with you when you go out, and supporting businesses that are working on eliminating their waste. We’re all in this together, so let’s work towards #PlasticFreeLand&Seas.