The Circular Economy Explained & How It Could Solve Our Global Waste Problem

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The term Circular Economy first entered my consciousness when reading an article in the paper about Ellen MacArthur, of solo round-the-world yachting fame back in the nineties. I was surprised to learn about her journey; from record breaking yachtswoman to spokesperson for a new kind of economic model, one that sets out to make better use of the world’s resources and eliminate waste - the Circular Economy.


What drove this unexpected divergence from a life at sea? Sailing solo gave MacArthur a profound understanding of what it means to be self sufficient. She spent weeks at sea, with only a limited amount of possessions (and her own considerable wits) with which to survive.  She would then return to dry land and ‘normal’ life, only to be struck by how little thought we give these same resources - all the things we use in everyday life - and how quickly we dispose of things.

‘ It suddenly dawned on me with the second round-the-world tour that our economy is no different than my boat. We have a world with finite resources: it’s absolutely no different from the boat.’

She has since set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, targeted towards industry and big business with a view to convincing them of a new, better way of doing things. In order to do this, she has brought the current model - referred to as a Linear Economy - under the spotlight.

How does the economy work at the moment? In this day and age, a product is made - for example, a plastic bottle or a mobile phone - we use it and then, when we’ve finished with it or it breaks or a new version comes along, we throw it away as waste. All of the natural resources (water, energy, metals) used to make that product are lost. This process of consumption and waste is a straight line, a Linear Economy.

Single use plastics, in particular, can be produced so cheaply that we consider them of little or no lasting value. We might buy takeaway food, drink and groceries that come packaged within a plastic cup, bag, tray, but the plastic resource itself is immediately disposed of, making the journey to landfill even shorter.

Whether resource is used for a few minutes (your coffee cup), a few months (your fashionable top) or a few years (your mobile phone), the Linear Economy relies on (mostly mass) consumption, with a lasting legacy of waste and a sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy.

The difference with a Circular Economy is that the prevention of waste is at its very core. It is all about designing and producing things in a way that keeps them in use for as long as possible, in which time they should be mended, shared, reused and repurposed. At the end of a long life, the product’s raw components can be used again to make something else, or else safely biodegraded.

For example, there are up to 60 metal elements like copper in a mobile phone, elements that are becoming more rare and expensive by the day. All of these elements can be recovered and reused, but for the most part they are being thrown away as waste.

The circular concept is a reflection of how our ecosystem works - the cycle of life. Nature functions by building up and breaking down again, before regenerating into new life. We’re currently producing stuff that doesn’t break down, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this will (and is) ending badly. We have a mounting global waste problem that is becoming impossible to ignore.

There are already many examples of individuals and businesses working along Circular Economy principles. My son, Will, came home from school yesterday and told me about a UK company who are making roads from recycled bottles and bags. Designed by an ex scientist, the roads are being trialled around the UK and have the potential to replace crude-oil based asphalt to produce roads that last longer and are kinder to the environment.

Another Indian company has created edible cutlery, to replace the plastic cutlery used so widely for street food. The cutlery is made from flour, and even comes as plain, sweet or savoury! If it is thrown away, it will naturally biodegrade in less than three days.

I’ve seen videos and features on many innovative products; like bioplastic bags made from starch and sugar that break down in a matter of weeks, skateboards made from old fishing nets and Timberland boots made from old tyres.

‘Timberland announced a partnership with tyre manufacturer and distributor Omni United on Monday to create the first line of tyres ever purposely designed to be recycled into footwear outsoles at the end of their lifecycle.’ - Mike Hower,

At The Wise House, we are starting to include information with all of our products about their ‘end of life’ so that customers can understand what will happen to a product when finished with. For example, our Bee’s Wrap, which replaces plastic wrap for food, can be reused for up to a year. At ‘end of life’ it can be composted, as it is made from natural materials like organic cotton and beeswax.

For her part, MacArthur has been successful in partnering big industries and stakeholders like Google and the World Economic Foundation. As well as implementing circular initiatives in their own organisations, they provide role models within industry as a whole. Thanks to her work, in 2017 the World’s first ‘standard’ for the circular economy was launched,

‘This standard provides a valuable introduction to the practical action organisations can take to accelerate their transition to a circular economy.’ Francois Souchet, Project Manager Insight and Analysis - Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Sky recently became the first FTSE-100 company to make a commitment to be single-use plastic free by 2020, and have committed £25 million to a plastic innovation fund with the aim to eradicate single-use plastics from supply chains around the world.

Given what we now know and can see about the effects of waste and plastic pollution, and the fact that resources are become increasingly scarce, a new more sustainable economic model is needed. What strikes me most is that the approach itself is nothing new; it’s the ‘make do and mend’ attitude of previous generations, when resources were simply too valuable to waste. The Circular Economy is surely just plain common sense.

If you're interested in this topic, then please do share and leave a comment below.

References - edible cutlery

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  1. Dean Barker

    This is great to hear. I always feel that saving the environment is more effective if businesses change the way they sell to consumers. We can all do our bit but the reality is the big businesses we buy from make it difficult so getting EVERYONE on board is much more likely to happen with something like this in play. I try and do my best but always end up feeling a bit guilty about buying something needlessly plastic out of convienience. Would love to play a part in helping to put the pressure on businesses to change the way they package goods. The future would be brighter if we just didn't have so many pollutants readily available. Would love to play a part in helping this movement progress faster. If small shops and whole food stores can go plastic free / eco friendly then surely large supermarkets can do the same. It should only take one to start the trend?

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  2. Miriam

    This is so interesting. I have become increasingly aware of how much we waste even though, as a family, we have felt that we are quite conscientious when it comes to caring for our environment and doing things like recycling. I have recently opted to stop using teabags and am trying out loose leaf tea. I posted a photo on social media which prompted a conversation with my cousin about old ways of doing things coming back like loose leaf tea, making (and mending) our old clothes and baking our own bread etc. I made a little quip about the saying ?what goes around, comes around? and it seems even truer after reading about the Circular Economy.

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  3. sarah martin

    As a lover of second-hand goods, this entirely makes sense, fixers markets, upcycling, vegan lifestyle, this is catching on as a moral choice, not just a trend .

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  4. Tracey Pye

    I found this blog fascinating. I try to be so careful now with what I purchase. Clothes/books from charity shops. No plastic toothbrushes. My gifts this year, bamboo toothbrushes to all my family. My carpet is 40 yrs old but made of wool. Looks like something out a museum lol I fight the pressure to replace it after all all we do is walk on it. I hadn?t heard of circular economy until this blog. Reading it I believe I live some of my life like this, the blog as made me see that. I now need to improve living this lifestyle and encouraging my family and friends to do the same.

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  5. [email protected]

    This is the future! We will have to make sure that 'End of life' information is put on everything produced globally. It is not enough just to say whether an article can be recycled or not! There are a lot of world citizens, like me, who are very concerned about the results of too much stuff going unnecessarily into landfill because of a lack of information about possible re-use instead of recycling.

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  6. Hannah

    Inspirational stories and people making a stand are the way to get others passionate about this but it will of course need a worldwide economy overhaul to change things for good as the majority of people are not likely to change their lifestyle at the expense of their own money, resources, time or effort.

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  7. Kara

    It seems that one of the reasons that some people are resistant to climate change is because any reasonable solution involves overhauling the current global economic model. In this case, individuals have limited power to enact change. We can green what we buy and how we consume, but that isn?t going to change much. The entire global economy needs to become circular.

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  8. Naomi

    I had no idea that this is what her foundation is wonderful though.

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  9. Holly Henderson

    I love this article. I would also love to see an ?end of use? section on all packaging (and products) in a similar way to the food traffic light system. The first step is definitely more awareness and this article explains it really clearly!

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  10. Nia

    Excellent article.

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  11. Jules P

    Great article. I think its so important to increase awareness and to encourage people to think differently about the products we buy, where we buy them from and what we do with them once we've bought them. I love the hopeful tone of this blog post and feel encouraged that there are alternatives to the current way of doing things.

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  12. Kathryn Kelly

    You might also enjoy Cradle to Cradle by McDonagh and Braungart, 2002.

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  13. Zan M

    Great article, I was reading about Bakeys just yesterday, a brilliant concept.

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  14. Claire Clements

    Agree. Big time. Was always brought up to recycle.. Return address to Tesco Customer Services. FREEPOST SCO2298, Dundee, DO1 9NF.. Return your unwanted packaging.. Stating Thanks but no thanks.. Find an alternative solution.

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  15. Helena jackson

    Great blog! All nicely summarised and indeed it isn't new thinking, just giving our wasteful ways a timely shake up I've long admired MacArthur for playing with the big guns and greening them from the outside in. Looking forward to this being the new norm - thanks for making the topic so accessible.

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  16. Uanfind Lewis

    Really interesting concept. I?d never heard of the circular economy before but it makes a lot of sense. I?ve often accepted single use items that I deemed more environmentally friendly e.g. paper bags but I?m now trying to be prepared & always bring my own reusable straws, bottles, bags etc.

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  17. Lesley Hayhurst

    Love this post says everything that I feel succinctly. We need more education for the general public so people stop and think before throwing things away without thinking of the impact on our planet. Will definitely share this as widely as possible.

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  18. Jo Weenink

    Thx for this thought provoking article. You?d love the Japanese textile practice of boro. A beautiful way of keeping fabric in the circular economy.

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  19. Amy

    Very interesting read. Having started my 'no to single-use' journey only recently, it's so exciting to learn about alternatives. I think the 'end of life' info you mentioned is incredibly important, since lots of products marketed as 'biodegradable' may only be after considerable time in the ground.

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  20. Linda Proctor

    Really interesting to read and totally agree that we need to reuse and recycle, and stop using single use plastics, but we also musn't forget about how chemicals are causing such a problem too. With over 80,000 chemicals introduced since the 50's they have only tested 200 for their effects on humans. Along with all the plastics going into the seas, think of all the bleach, washing powder,washing up liquids that go into our waterways - read the labels you will be amazed at how many say 'harmful to aquatic life - serious long lasting effects.' This is just the start, we can no longer do nothing, we must all do our bit.

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  21. Ruth Fraser

    I thought I was reasonably environmentally conscious (and conscientious) but I've realised how much single use plastic we get through. Whilst it is baby steps at the minute, baby steps won't be fast enough. We need to vote with our wallets, feed back to every supplier whose packaging is environmentally unsustainable and make big changes as a society.

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  22. Hanna

    I like the boat metaphor; that makes it really clear. It's so heartening how there seems to be a critical mass of awareness and opinion pushing back against single-use plastic (and other things). I have cared about environmental sustainability for years - always compost, mend, refashion or charity shop clothes etc etc but even I have definitely started taking more decisions to avoid waste on a daily basis - like I go to the shop for a pick-me-up snack and think, what could I buy that doesn't come wrapped in plastic? or I fancy a drink but I'll get a takeaway tea in a cardboard cup rather than water in a plastic bottle. Thanks for running the Wise House and making sustainable choices easier - and attractive, which is a crucial part in getting people to join in.

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  23. Vicky Cheung

    A very interesting read! With a background in ecology and environmental biology this is something that I've always been interested in and have always tried really hard to at least recycle and reuse things where I can but this is a great reminder to me about changing the way we approach materials generally as it is so easy in our everyday busy lives to use disposable items far too much!

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  24. Gemma Munson

    not until the local council changed our recycling collections, had I been aware as to how much plastic actually comes in to my house. It's staggering, I put out more plastic recycling than I do 'normal' rubbish! So much of the plastic is unnecessary. I'm very conscious now. it's thanks to people like yourself that are educating us even further on the impact this is having on our environment and making new innovative products available, to help us do our bit! Great blog Lucy, thank you.

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  25. Polly Dawson

    For years I?ve been hassling my friends to use products made of recycled materials in order that recycling has an economic value. So pleased the message is now getting out there. X

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  26. Alix Pratt

    A great read Lu, it all just makes so much sense! How long can we really sustain our current throw away society? Well done for your continued work highlighting the issues and selling gorgeous products that address them! Xx

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