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Recycling and the Circular Economy: Rethinking “Waste Not, Want Not”

When it comes to waste management, several mantras come to mind. We’ve talked before about “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and how the first two “R’s” are often overlooked, yet matter quite a bit. And then unfortunately, thanks to landfills, “out of sight, out of mind” also seems like a relevant saying.

Yet there’s one in particular that sticks out to me—a truism rarely questioned: “waste not, want not.” On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. If we use our resources efficiently, and with little waste, then we will rarely be lacking in those resources. We can quickly apply this concept to another topic we’ve written about: food waste. Every year, Americans collectively throw out $165 billion of food—that’s over $600 per household. If this food had been used more efficiently, perhaps purchased in more reasonable amounts, shared with neighbors, or donated to soup kitchens, there would have been more food available for those who need it. Waste not, want not.

But how realistic is this concept? Take manufacturing businesses. Our current manufacturing model is to purchase raw materials and turn them into products; the waste from this process is thrown away. Then, we purchase those products, use them, and discard them when we’re done (except in cases where they can be recycled). It’s linear. Is it feasible to tell manufacturers “waste not,” when the transformation of virgin materials into products inherently produces waste?  That’s not to say a company shouldn’t try to use its materials as efficiently as possible.  But isn’t it incredibly difficult to extract oneself from this “linear economy,” where all materials flow towards the landfill?

The good news is there’s hope! You may remember when we wrote previously about the “circular economy,” and why you need to understand it now. A circular economy is one where products are designed with the concept of “cradle to cradle” in mind. Every component that is produced is done-so with the goal of keeping it usable as long as possible, even after the product’s useful life has ended. In its ideal form, a circular economy closes the production loop, sending valuable materials back into production over and over again.

Another way of looking at this is that “waste” in a linear process is instead captured for reuse. This can happen during manufacturing and at the end of a product’s useful life. By keeping resources productive as long as possible, we’re able to create not only supply chains, but also return chains. Collaboration among these networks supports the design of products with the circular economy mind.

So because of this focus of keeping all resources viable, the concept of “waste” is almost, well, out of date. The circular economy is about targeting materials that are in excess in a process, or that are no longer “useful” for a given product, and figuring out other applications or uses for them. It’s about building a series of repurposing programs that earn profit. The circular economy is about discovering opportunities for materials, and pursuing those opportunities that create value for resources previously thrown away.

I propose a change. It’s true we should still try and be as efficient with the materials we are given. “Waste not, want not” can still have a home in efficiency.  But given that the externalities to the production and use of a product can potentially offer new areas for profit, we should not be shy about capitalizing on the new, circular approach. It’s “waste not, need less.”

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