The Circular Economy: More than Just ‘Recycling Better’

linear vs recycling vs circular economy

All too frequently the terms ‘recycling’ and ‘circular economy’ are understood as interchangeable concepts. We often think of moving towards a circular economy as simply getting better at recycling – and while this notion isn’t entirely off the mark, it is important to understand that the circular economy involves so much more.

What makes the economy circular?

So in that case, what makes a circular economy so different? To answer this question, it is important to first understand a recycling economy and how it differs from a linear economy.

Linear, Reuse (Recycling), and Circular Economy. Image:

A linear economy follows a take, make, waste pattern of consumption, in which all the products we use are sourced from virgin materials and all the materials in these products will go to waste once they have reached the end of their life. Once they are disposed, they serve no use and do not contribute any value whatsoever.

The recycling, or reuse, economy realizes that this is a highly unsustainable mode of operating, and seeks to recover value from end-of-life products by recycling them into new or different products. It does this by processing the item back down into its material components, then building those materials up into something new.

glass recycling process
How the process of recycling really works, by The Mycenean.

While this process certainly goes miles further in terms of sustainability and keeping value within the system, it still has its flaws. Most of the time the recycled materials are lower in quality and value than the virgin material or the product as a whole. Thus, the value of things are lost more quickly and the range of ways the recycled material can be used is limited. Furthermore, as the diagram shows, the only option available for non-recyclable waste is for it to exit the system, and its value is lost.

Recycling should be seen as a ‘last effort’ to retain value when all other approaches have been exhausted, simply because other methods are more effective at doing so.

What differentiates the circular economy is its response to this issue: a perfect circular economy recovers the value of all materials and retains them within the system – closing the loop – by means of designing both the system and the products to retain value in every stage of the cycle. In the first place, the product and production can be designed to generate no waste, for example by using all parts of a potato rather than only the flesh to generate different products.

When such a feat is impossible, the system is designed in such way that the waste of one industry is put to use as a raw material in another. In the use phase, methods such as take-back or lease schemes, product sharing, refurbishing are used to extend that product’s life and make use of it for as long as possible. Finally, rather than becoming waste at the end of the product’s life, the components can be looped back into the system at the same value level via upcycling and remanufacturing, or at a lower value level via recycling.

Thus what makes the circular economy different from and more effective than the recycling economy is that it finds ways for whole products and/or their components to be useful within the cycle as they are, for as long as possible. It’s the principle of ‘the sum is greater than its parts’ – the metals and plastics in the form of a repaired coffee machine are more useful and worth more than those very same metals and plastics once recycled back down into their raw material form.

Hence, recycling is an important component of the circular economy, but it certainly should not be seen as the main component. In fact, recycling should be seen as a ‘last effort’ to retain value when all other approaches have been exhausted, simply because methods such as reuse or remanufacture are more effective at doing so.

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