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The Circular Economy: Why You Need to Understand It Now!

When I started my sustainability career, the first book I read (even before Silent Spring) was Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  Like many things in this field, it was both inspiring and somewhat overwhelming at the same time.  As I read, words like “obvious” paired with “innovative” and “brilliant” paired with “duh” kept popping into my head.

Looking back, it’s really interesting to see how the book’s concepts have blossomed and caught on since its publication back in 2002. At its core, the concept of cradle to cradle is about building with the intent of eliminating waste. That concept is now being incorporated in very systematic ways into a rapidly growing movement referred to as the Circular Economy. You know a meme is taking off when its adopters are named for it (“Circulars” – kind of like Googlers).  I’m thinking this idea is will soon be a verb – as in “we have to circularize that product!”

Here’s the main reason why: duh, it’s brilliant. In a circular economy, every product is imagined, designed, and built to keep its usable component parts in use, even after the product’s useful life is over.  You might say, geeze, we all do recycling. But you’d be missing the point. This is building with the intent to make reusing and recycling not only feasible, but also attractive. This is about creating take back programs with meaningful profit.

Here’s another reason the Circular Economy is taking off: it’s obviously positive, and competitively innovative. When you’re a Circular, you ask questions like:

  • We’ve figured out how to put paint on metal so it doesn’t chip, peel, or fade, but can we easily and cost effectively get it off so we can reclaim and reuse the metal when the consumer is done?
  • Are there other processes we can use in creating a product that will generate less waste? Can we eliminate hazards?
  • To what other uses can our manufacturing salvage waste be put? Are there other, comparable or better commodities we can use that will give us a salvage waste that can be reincorporated into the manufacturing or put to other, profitable use?
  • What can we observe in nature that would help us make a less wasteful product?

These kinds of questions lead to innovation in how we build products in the first place.  They represent a shift from the linear “Take, Make, Waste” mentality of the Industrial Revolution to a “Make, Use, Return” mentality that is at the heart of the Circular Economy.  Innovative businesses are seizing this emerging opportunity to rethink traditional models and create circular-based practices. Practices like using circular supplies, where renewable/reusable materials get incorporated into product design. Or practices like collaborating with value chain partners to drive innovation in zero-waste packaging. There are scores of examples of these creative approaches to integrating Circular Economy thinking into today’s business practices.

Why is this important? Because there’s value in so many of the materials we currently send to our landfills.  If you are manufacturing, and you’re not thinking like a Circular, you’re going to be falling behind the competitive curve in the future.  In a future of resource scarcity and limited and increasingly costly waste disposal, manufacturing businesses will be valued just as much on their ability to create products that can be disassembled as they are on the product itself.