The circular economy: what is it?

13th September 2021
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The circular economy: what is it? 

Not only are we in a climate crisis, we’re facing a significant waste problem. Since the early fifties, the world has produced around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic alone. So what’s the solution? What if every time you finished your coffee, your cup was reused to make a new cup or what if once a building was no longer needed, the materials could be reused in another build. This is a circular economy. 

A circular economy is an economic system to help tackle global challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution. Businesses all over the world are starting to take this up in order to help reduce their carbon footprint. It prioritises the reuse and recycling of products and resources to eliminate waste and keep it circulating. 

We are and have been mainly operating in a linear consumption model. Companies will produce goods or build buildings, customers will buy these goods or use these buildings and then once they’re no longer needed, they are disposed of or demolished. 

According to a report on the circular economy guidance for the construction industry, of the 92.8 billion tonnes of minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass that enter the global economy, only 9% is circular and re-used annually. The built environment not only contributes to 40% of the UK’s total carbon emissions, but it also produces mountains of waste. Put simply, the circular economy continually reuses and recycles to preserve resources and avoid more waste ending up in landfill. 

To avoid more waste within the built environment, we need to work on the design of buildings to ensure that once they are no longer needed or used, that they can either be reused or the materials recycled, creating a circular economy. This should be underpinned by a transition towards renewable energy sources and can be based on three principles; designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. 

The circular model distinguishes between technical and biological cycles, biologically based materials and building components are generally designed to feedback into and regenerate living systems while technical cycles recover and restore products, components and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, re-manufacture or, as a last resort, recycling. 

As long as this is ingrained into the design of the initial stages, businesses can thrive in the circular economy. But all parts of the business need to be on board from the top to the bottom and right through the supply chain. We need to stop throwing things away, and find ways to reuse them. Moving to more modern methods of manufacturing and construction is a start but we need to make sure our waste can be reused, turned into fuel or recycled. 

This doesn’t just fall to individuals, more and more people are living sustainably but it’s companies that need to do better. In a circular economy, instead of waste heading to landfill, companies would offer to take back the product or material and look to either reuse them or recycle them properly, minimising waste and reducing their overall carbon footprint. 

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