We’ve been told that a ‘circular economy’ could be the common answer to waste problems in industries as different as fashion and construction, but what does it actually mean? Given that it’s a way to completely revolutionise how we build, buy, and use everyday items, it’s important we all understand how circular economies can make the world better.
Most industries currently work with a linear economy model: we take raw materials like ore and cotton, use them to make a product, enjoy that product for its intended purpose, and finally dispose of it when we’re done. We move from the start of this process to the end in a straight line, and every time we need more products, we need to source new raw materials and add to the pile of waste at the end. Recycling adds one small loop to the system, allowing us to reuse some materials from waste items in similar products rather than creating them from entirely raw materials. But recycling alone can only do so much, especially when many products are still made from non-recyclable materials, or are made up of so many types of materials that they cannot be recycled easily.
This is where a circular economy comes in. Rather than saving only some of the materials that would otherwise go to landfill, such a system sees every bit of ‘waste’ – from the carbon dioxide created by production processes to the scrap textiles from old clothes – as a resource that can be used as a new material in something else. This practice has a huge influence on product design. Items need to be more easily separated into their individual materials to ease the process of recycling, while new products can be designed to use abundant waste instead of new raw materials. A great example of this change can be seen in the work of Indian-Australian Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who designed a process for turning recycled glass and old clothes into kitchen tiles.
The circular economy system also emphasises making products last longer in order to slow the process of creating waste as well as the demand for replacements. This partly involves designing more durable products, but it also encourages different styles of business, where an item’s life is prolonged through repairs or rentals. Palanta, for example, is a company that rents out clothing like maternity wear and baby clothes that are often only worn for a short period of time, meaning multiple people can make use of the product beyond the classic hand-me-down system. It’s all about minimising the use of completely raw materials as well as the amount of unusable waste that gets left behind.
Although a shift to a circular economy comes with a significant start-up cost for consumers, businesses, and governments alike, the long term benefits are enormous. Using a circular economy is much better for the environment, as greenhouse gas emissions and other waste products are directed back into the production method. It also enables us to conserve environments much more effectively because we need to gather fewer raw materials. Ultimately, using waste resources can also be more reliable, sustainable, and even cheaper than the expensive process of continually extracting raw materials: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2013 report Towards the Circular Economy suggests that the whole of the EU could make a net materials cost saving of up to USD$630 billion annually.
The core values of a circular economy encourage us to close the loop between non-renewable resources and harmful waste left behind in landfill, creating a more sustainable system that is better for the planet. It’s most impactful at the level of industry and government, as they make decisions about how to source materials and how waste can be processed, but as individuals we can make a difference by supporting the businesses that strive for change.
To see some circular economy systems already in action, check out our features on the sustainable denim brands you should know, the Schoonschip Village of sustainable homes, and children’s clothing brand Petit Pli.
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