Our economy, and the goods it produces, has nearly always been based on a model of “take-make-dispose.” We take natural resources: trees, water, minerals, metals, etc. from our earth, make a product for a consumer to purchase, and then when that product reaches the end of its lifetime, it is sent to a landfill. However, our resources are not limitless, so how can we evolve our production, purchasing, and disposal habits to be more circular—recycling and reusing materials—rather than linear?
Several companies are already incorporating this model and it’s proving to be good for both business and the planet.
In the past five years, firms like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation have set their sights on spreading the word of a circular economy and the benefits to business and society. The former even released a report revealing that shifting to a circular economy in Europe alone is a $1.8 trillion business opportunity!
Many circular economy concepts are not new and many have been in play for years, like diverting as much waste as possible to recycling or composting and then incinerating what is truly waste. Less materials sent to landfills translate to lower landfill costs. Technological advances in the recycling space allow for “single stream collection”; materials that used to be separated can now be comingled, making it easier to collect and transport to the recycling center.
These advances have increased recycling participation by double digits over the last five years or less.
Some companies are going above and beyond and resolving to find ways to repurpose materials rather than using virgin materials. For example:
- 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 recycled 28 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 toothbrushes 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.
- Interface sources materials for carpet tiles from an unexpected place. Floating in the shallow waters off the coast of the Philippines lie thousands of tons of discarded fishing nets, which contain the exact fiber needed to create new carpet tiles. Over the past 5 years, more than 56,000 kg of this net have been removed from the ecosystem and used to create a sellable product. The waste from one industry becomes the feedstock for another.
Disruptions are also occurring in the traditional waste hauling model. For 100+ years, businesses have relied on bins or containers from a hauler that are picked up and hauled away, and the hauler charges for the bin space, no matter how much of it is used. Some of the most exciting innovations today are related to new sensor and “smart bin” technologies that use IoT devices to provide information about the bin size/weight/capacity back to a central system, allowing businesses to confirm how much waste is hauled away and pay for only what they use. This information is also useful for diversion activities and tracking progress to the baseline.
The Earth’s resources are not limitless. We need to move beyond a ‘take, make, dispose’ economy towards one where all materials are treated as precious resources, with nothing thrown away. With proven economic benefits to businesses to recycle more, versus sending all their waste to the landfill, the largest barrier to making key changes to their processes has been removed.