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Circular Economy: What it is and why we need it?

January 29, 2020
Sustainability

If you follow the news, you may have heard the phrase circular economy bandied about. But what exactly is the circular economy, and why do we need it?

The concept of the circular economy is based on several earlier theories and schools of thought, most of which draw their inspiration from nature. Over time, many have pointed out the fact that nature mostly works in cycles. We often study those cycles – like the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles – in school.

Unlike nature, humans have had a slightly different approach to things since the industrial revolution. We extract resources, manufacture goods, buy and consume them and when they break or we get bored with them, we throw them away. Then we set out to extract more resources to make new products.

Much of the waste produced in this manner ends up in landfills or is burned in incineration plants. This way of doing things has its benefits. It fuels our economies – it creates jobs, revenues, and taxes that go to building schools and hospitals – and it keeps us content because we have a lot of stuff.

But there are obvious problems with it. One of them is the fact that resources are finite. The more we extract, the more we deplete the planet’s deposits and the less there is left for future generations. The other is that the amount of waste we generate is sizeable and we’re not very good at managing it. That is why it ends up in places where it shouldn’t — like in oceans, in the belly of marine animals and birds, and, by going up the trophic chain, it makes its way into our own bodies.

Yet another issue is the fact that the world’s population is growing and getting wealthier, as products are becoming cheaper and cheaper. The implications of these trends for the environment and the climate are worrisome, as scientists like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have repeatedly pointed out.

If we keep doing what we are doing, the climate stands to warm by as much as another 3 degrees Celsius before the end of this century, which will spell doom for much of biodiversity and for life as we know it.

The solution
The obvious solution is that we as a society need to change the way we do things. Instead of throwing broken or old products away, we should design them in such a way that they can be repurposed into new products —that is, switching from a linear consumption model to a circular one.

There are numerous ways to accomplish that. Among them are making more durable products, designing them to be modular so that their parts can be replaced when they break, remanufacturing goods into new products, using fewer materials and materials that can be re- and upcycled. The good news is that our technological know-how is sophisticated enough to make most of these ideas possible.

The bad news is that, in practice, technology isn’t enough. The problem continues to be us, people. People need incentives to do things differently, especially if doing things differently will cost them money. That is why we speak about a circular economy, as opposed to circular manufacturing or circular technology. It is because we need to figure out a way to enable technology to make it into the mainstream economy.

> Read the full article on the Interesting Engineering website

By Carmen Valache

Source: Interesting Engineering

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