You’ll probably be familiar with the old saying ‘make, use, dispose’ – it’s the model we all live by. A crisp packet holds its tasty contents until we eat them and thoughtlessly throw the packaging away as waste. This is known as a linear economy, but it’s quickly becoming unsustainable.
A circular economy is an attempt to keep materials in use for as long as possible.
The idea is to create a closed loop of recovery, recycling and regeneration. This involves designing products that are intended to last, optimising their potential value, and then recovering and recycling them at the end of each life cycle.
Imagine recovering plastic from used ink cartridges and turning the recycled material into new ink cartridges, or turning old tyres into the soles of boots. These are examples of circular economy concepts, and, incredibly, they’re already happening in the world around us.
Ultimately, in a circular economy we throw less away.
Why should we care?
It’s not just the value of a product itself that’s wasted in our current use and dispose system – the energy and resources required to make that product are also squandered. This is a problem as resources, as we know, are finite.
In a circular economy, waste is reduced as resources are designed to endure rather than to be disposed of. A major benefit of this is that the negative impact we currently have on our environment can also be reduced.
An amazing example hit the news recently as major brand Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced that a number of shampoo bottles were to be made from ocean plastics. Steve Morgan, technical director at plastics recycling network Recoup, hailed the project as a ‘technological breakthrough’ due to the high level of recycled ocean plastics (up to 25%) the bottles will contain.
P&G have followed in the footsteps of other major companies such as Adidas, which put 7,000 pairs of trainers made from marine plastics on sale last November.
Similarly at Biffa, we helped Sainsbury’s become the largest retail user of anaerobic digestion (AD) in an effort to support a circular economy. This means that, by using our advanced facilities and a unique power link up, Sainsbury’s Cannock store is powered using electricity generated solely from food waste from Sainsbury’s stores across the UK.
What are the challenges?
Only 14% of plastic packaging is currently recycled across the world, despite the fact that plastic production is estimated to double within the next twenty years.
The Ellen MacArthur foundation has reasoned that this figure could be raised to 70% with a determined effort from the industry – the issue now is how to implement the systems and processes that will allow us to achieve this.
As with most ambitious ideas, the plan for implementing the circular economy still has quite a way to go. The logistical challenges can’t be underestimated, but the progress being made by P&G, Adidas and a wealth of other companies is reassuring. A circular economy is revolving within our sights!
Ellen MacArthur Foundation