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What is a circular economy?

By Alex Truelove
Director, Zero Waste Campaign

Written by Maddy Unger, summer Zero Waste intern with U.S. PIRG.

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In order to transition from a linear economy to a circular one, we must begin with the physical design of products.

This past June, Minneapolis witnessed the first ever “Circular Economy” conference. Circularity 19, organized by media and events company GreenBiz, brought together 850 leaders from major corporations including Google, REI, Best Buy and Target to discuss how they can take steps toward a more sustainable, equitable and -- most importantly -- circular economy. But what exactly does that mean?

A circular economy is based on three main principles: designing products to reduce waste, using products and materials for as long as possible, and recycling end-of-life products back into the economy. Right now, our economic system is linear: We extract materials from the environment, we manufacture products not designed to last, and we waste products in epic proportions. In America, about two thirds of everything we use ends up in a landfill or is incinerated. 

In order to transition from a linear economy to a circular one, we must begin with the physical design of products. If the products are designed to last longer, to be more easily recyclable and more repairable, we reduce unnecessary waste and resource depletion from the start. 

We know this is possible. For example, Target’s new household cleaning brand Everspring is made from recycled and recyclable packaging. 3M’s iconic Scotch-Brite sponge has been re-invented over the years to be made out of everything from agave fibers from tequila-processing facilities to 100 percent renewable, recycled and recyclable fibers this year. Both of these products were designed from the start to utilize recycled material and to be recyclable after use. 

At the conference, product designers for both brands talked about the challenges of designing products to be easily disassembled for recycling. For example, Target has operated car seat trade-in events since 2016, where customers can bring in unwanted car seats. At first, employees struggled to disassemble seats into separate materials, which prompted them to change course to make the seats more easily disassemblable, and to be more easily remanufactured into another car seat. Most plastics degrade when recycled, and so they are turned into a part of something different, like polyester and fleece in clothing and carpets. However, this second life is often as part of a non-recyclable product. Therefore, if a product could be designed to retain its initial use again and again after being recycled, less waste would be produced. 

While both Target and 3M have dabbled in product redesign, and both have announced and implemented ambitious goals towards a circular future, both also agreed at the conference that future design and innovation is fueled by consumer demand. According to Target, partnering with customers and learning what their challenges are is what has led to such innovation and sustainable commitment in large scale manufacturing. 

A true circular economy requires not only a “re-thinking” process on the design side, but advocacy on the consumer side as well. To move towards a circular economy consumers need to demand extended producer responsibility. This is where products are invested in or licensed by manufacturers, making them physically and financially responsible for the disposal of their products. Extended producer responsibility has been implemented around the world, and has successfully altered product design and reduced harmful waste.

A circular economy cannot simply rely on the impressive commitments announced at Circularity 19, such as Best Buy’s technology recycling and carbon emission reduction program, Arc’teryx and REI’s used gear and apparel sales, or Google’s product and material circulation in its data centers. According to the MacArthur Foundation, “it’s about all the interconnecting companies that form our infrastructure and economy coming together.”  Sustainable re-design and extended producer responsibility cannot be the impressive exceptions, but rather they need to be the norm across the United States. It is apparent that consumers have, and should continue to utilize their voices to influence corporate sustainability goals and hold corporations accountable to their commitments. No economy can be truly circular without majority participation. To the public -- you have the power, keep the pressure on.

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