When I was in college, the common thought was that the economy and environment cannot work in harmony. Throwing items in a landfill was normal, and extracting new resources to make new products was easier and cheaper than using resources efficiently and designing products to last.
We’ve set up our entire economic system on a truth that actually isn’t: resources are infinite. If resources are infinite, then creating waste might make sense. But we know that they’re not. We’re all on this ship together, and all we have is what’s here.
Historic cultures couldn’t afford to waste – not because they didn’t have space to dispose of it, but because resources were precious. Can you imagine – tossing refuse off the Mayflower? Leaving garbage as you crossed the Oregon Trail? Or, wasting precious metals during World War II?
In modern history, our global economy has expanded our country’s access to cheaper products, but soon, our economic models that don’t account for resource finiteness will no longer pencil out.
Here’s the hopeful part: with a little creativity, teamwork, and reprogramming, we are starting to shift our economic models to make the world better. More often, I hear about companies that are able to grow and save money by reexamining how they use resources and create waste. For the first time in recent history, what’s in the best interest of the environment can also benefit economic growth and your businesses bottom line.
In two different cycles, waste can nourish our economy. We are familiar with biological nutrient cycles in our food system, but we can also use technical nutrients in manufacturing cycles (think electronics, textiles, paper, etc.). When products are easy to disassemble, made of simple parts, and contain no toxins, they can more readily be reapplied in the technical nutrient system.
In a linear economy, we extract, manufacture, distribute, use, and dispose of resources. Each step consumes energy, water, and raw resources. While these precious resources sit idly in a landfill, we then mine new resources to keep up with product demand. This model is not only wasteful, it also does not make sense.
By working smarter, we can also make our world better. In a circular economy, resources are put back into the production cycle. Instead of sitting idly in a landfill, they are actively participating in our economy again and keeping natural resources in nature.
These cycles are sparking new opportunity and entrepreneurism:
- RepurposedMATERIALS sells industrial equipment to be repurposed for creative uses.
- Using byproduct synergy, General Biodiesel separates their glycerin, a byproduct of creating biodiesel from used cooking oil, to go into many channels including soap making, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, absorbent materials manufacturing, and even suppressing dust on dirt roads.
- Companies, like Philips, are redistributing resources by designing their own products to be broken down into technical nutrients that can then be repaired and reused in their own production system.
- Businesses have expanded their products. In the past 20 years, the Nike Reuse-A-Shoe has recycled28 million pairs of expired running shoes into enough field surface to cover Manhattan.
- New organizations are forming to feed solely the technical nutrient cycle—they collect and refine materials with no current alternative disposal option and recycle them into new products. TerraCycle leverages communities to collect everything from old tooth brushes to Clif Bar wrappers.
- Companies are accomplishing more together than they could alone. Through the Preserve Gimme 5 program, Whole Foods, Stonyfield Yogurt, Plum Organics, Berry Plastics, Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and Preserve have partnered to recycle plastic feedstock to create new plastic products, like toothbrushes, razors, and even food storage containers.
These U.S. businesses aren’t on the band wagon alone. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest report reveals that shifting to a circular economy is a $1.8 trillion business opportunity. The 100 international businesses in their CE 100 have come together to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Australia forecasts that their circular economy could be worth $26 billion by 2025.
Let’s continue to move forward. Businesses grow when they are innovating and thinking about how to do things better. One company, willing to rethink its economic model, can inspire more to follow. So, where is your opportunity?
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