Waste is an inevitable aspect of being human in today’s world — or so most people believe. But what if we told you that reducing and even eliminating waste is possible? All we have to do to get to that point is convince a few key industry sectors to start doing things a bit differently. Basically, we need to transition to a circular economy model.
If you’ve never heard of the term, we can’t blame you. Most people don’t go around researching the economic system they live in — let alone alternative methods of production. Still, learning about circular economy is a great way to introduce other concepts — like Zero Waste manufacturing.
Of course, before we can do all that, we have to be aware of the system we currently have. With that in mind, let’s start by talking about the cause of the waste accumulation we are dealing with today.
Is Linear Economy Outdated?
Most people know that the amount of waste production and accumulation we are fighting against was ultimately caused by our economic system. The principles of linear economy are fairly simple. We take what we need from nature, and we transform these raw materials into products, which we dispose of when they’re no longer of use. Proponents of this system assumed that the planet is capable of providing infinite resources and regenerating an infinite amount of waste.
As we now know, that is simply not the case. So the system’s goal of maximizing production and sales has become impossible to envision without also seeing the eventual consequences.
After all, to keep production cycles going, we also need to create demand. That’s why many commodities we buy nowadays fall apart so quickly. The sooner your shirt rips open at the seams, the sooner you’ll go looking for a new one. But before we start pointing fingers at the fast fashion industry, remember that the system affects all commercial enterprises.
Is There a Different Kind of Approach We Can Opt for?
The excessive production and turnover of commodities we see in the linear economy are all but guaranteed to produce an enormous amount of waste. But as any waste management expert will tell you — it’s never too late to veer toward another approach.
In recent years, many people have been considering the benefits of transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle. Basically, rather than throwing their used up and damaged items, the goal of Zero Waste is to find a way to use them again. Whether it’s composting, making bags out of ripped jeans, or turning broken pans into planters — people are having to be creative with items they would have otherwise tossed in the trash.
But while most people are familiar with the philosophy in general, not many are aware of who started Zero Waste. Believe it or not, the phrase was coined in the ‘80s. However, Daniel Knapp, one of the first people who formulated the idea of total recycling, didn’t just talk the talk. Instead, he and his wife founded a salvaging market, Urban Ore, to focus on diverting waste from their local landfill and reusing it within the community.
Over the years, their ideas inspired many others to look for ways to reduce their waste production. Eventually, those principles reached the waste management industry and society at large. All through the ‘90s and early ‘00s, “no waste” slogans were everywhere. But where did all that activism lead?
The Birth of Circular Economy
The idea of a cyclical system of production is certainly older than the modern Zero Waste philosophy. However, the concept of a circular economy wasn’t mentioned until 1988. Even then, shifting perspectives around the subject of waste production and management certainly helped popularize the idea.
Ultimately, the philosophies behind these two concepts are closely aligned. Both aim to reduce and eventually eliminate the production of waste. Unlike the linear approach we discussed earlier, circular economy is all about letting the Earth recover and minimizing the amount of raw resources we take from it. But in addition to benefiting the planet, the principles of sustainable production also need to benefit businesses.
After all, rather than paying for raw materials that are directly taken from nature, circular economy advocates for reusing and recycling already-processed materials. That should reduce the cost of production — in theory. Unfortunately, recycling technology is still too expensive for some businesses to invest in. So how can we, as consumers, nudge them in the right direction?
How Do We Start Transitioning to Circular Economy?
On an individual level, one thing we can all do is check our consumption habits. Don’t just throw out old items if you don’t have to. Instead, learn how to mend and transform objects into items you can keep using and loving.
Additionally, you can transition to shopping from sustainable local businesses. Ultimately, the cost of shipping is much greater than you might think. If nothing else, shopping locally tends to have a lower carbon footprint.
These individual decisions should eventually influence businesses to reduce the number of commodities they produce in the first place. But there’s one more thing we can do to prompt the industry to change its ways. Namely, we can influence policies with our vote.
Getting people to participate in this as a political movement is the best way to put pressure on companies. If there are laws and sanctions in place to regulate the production of commodities and waste, businesses will have to adjust their habits.
Can We Achieve Zero Waste Manufacturing?
As we have previously stated, all we need to transition to Zero Waste manufacturing is a few key industry sectors. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, these sectors should be steel, plastic, and aluminum manufacturing, as well as cement and food industries. By getting these five sectors to reuse materials during the production process in the factory, we could cut carbon emissions by 3.7 billion tons by 2050. New technologies like artificial intelligence are making it possible to make the transition to sustainable product development.
Best of all, the emerging models of circular economy will not only stimulate business growth but also create many new job opportunities. So the sooner we take that leap, the sooner our planet can start recovering.