For years we have been used to a traditional linear economy (take, make, waste) and industrial processes and lifestyles that created products that end up in incinerators or in landfills. With the world being more socially responsible and sustainability forming part of boardroom agendas and company strategies, a new style of economy is now firmly in place – the circular economy.
This is defined as an economy in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. The term circular economy draws from a number of more specific approaches including cradle to cradle, biomimicry, industrial ecology, and the blue economy. Most frequently described as a framework for thinking, its supporters claim it is a coherent model that has value as part of a response to the end of the era of cheap oil and materials.
In broad terms, the circular approach is a framework that takes insights from living systems. It considers that our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle, whether biological or technical, hence the ‘closed loop’ term usually associated with it.
In short, a circular economy closes resource loops and mimics the natural ecosystem. The ecological and social impact of actions need to be carefully considered and renewable energy used to make a circular economy truly happen. This then results in an economy where materials are managed and recycled efficiently, they run on renewable energy and there is no negative impact on the ecosystem or human life.
It is estimated around 600 million tonnes of products and materials enter the UK economy each year of which only 115 million tonnes gets recycled. By pursuing opportunities for re-use, the UK could reduce it reliance on raw materials by as much as 20% by 2020.
The circular economy is defiantly here to stay. All that needs to happen is for companies to build it into the core of their thinking so it becomes second nature. The economic benefits speak for themselves. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) calculates that the benefit to UK businesses could be as high as £23 billion per year through low cost or no cost improvements in the efficient use of resources, whilst some estimates of the global value of resource efficiency could eventually reach $3.7 trillion per year.