After years of being regarded as the poor cousin of waste disposal recycling is becoming the star. It has to do with the adoption of the circular economy. Instead of throwing things away – the waste disposal option, which is based on the linear economy – we are now starting to reuse them. The recycling option is based on the circular economy.
The so called linear economy is based on a model of “take, make, use and waste”. In simple terms we take raw materials from the planet and make them into artefacts to be used by humans. When we are finished with them we throw them away. Which is why we have mountains of trash.
With rapidly increasing population sizes and rising levels of wealth it is easy to understand that the planet will not be able to sustain the linear economy indefinitely. The resources which the planet offers, from metals to fish are not infinite and we are fast approaching the limits of supply.
Our planet simply cannot sustain a linear economy, we must adapt or die
In about 1966 some people started thinking about an alternative business model called the closed loop economy or circular economy. Largely based on natural systems which do not create waste, this thinking has evolved into a business system. With the adoption of the circular economy by governments and big business recycling’s time has come. (For more on this see The Ellen Macarthur Foundation)
The fundamental difference between the circular and linear economy is the reuse of products. Instead of throwing them away products are reused by recycling them or upcycling them. A traditional recycling service provider collects products such as cardboard, paper, plastic, tin and glass and sells them to be re-engineered into other products. An example is converting plastic into roof tiles.
The circular economy is, however, developing very quickly and so are the strategies. The latest thinking proposes designing products and packaging for reuse. This involves selecting the right materials, using the processes which are most suited for the purposes and having a reuse plan in place.
Clothing is a good example of items which need to be upcycled or recycled. Often designed for a fashion season or a short period what happens to the clothing not sold? It is estimated that up to one third of all clothing in the UK ends up in landfills every year. This has given rise to a change of thinking in how clothes are upcycled and recycled at the end of the season. In addition to buying and selling old clothes there is an industry which upcycles clothing into furniture and other fabrics.
Re-purposing old clothing to furniture and other fabrics is a fine example of the circular economy
The circular economy also means a change in how business will be done. Industries will, in future, be more interested in selling services than selling products. Rather than sell you a light globe, which will need to be replaced at regular intervals, the company will sell you “light”. You will enter into a contract with a service provider to have light in your home or factory in the same way as you now hire telephone services or buy water or electricity.
In the same way manufacturers are coming up with new systems which will allow products to be disassembled and reused. The older parts of a used washing machine can be removed, the interior refurbished and the casing replaced.
Big business and governments are seeing the value in the circular economy. Not just from a feel good factor but also in the value which they derive. It is generally cheaper to reuse materials than buy virgin material.
How does this affect recycling? The core to the circular economy is reusing products. There are many products which can be recycled but it is not cost effective to do so. It is simply not feasible to collect small amounts of recycled materials from individuals. The cost of transport, never mind the time spent getting through traffic and finding parking, would make such a service prohibitively expensive.
It is generally cheaper to reuse materials than buy virgin material
As the circular economy becomes more main stream however, the size and sophistication of the market will increase. Recycling will respond by finding alternate ways of working. We presently collect more types of materials than we did previously. Ewaste and tetra pak were hardly collected 5 years ago. If there is a demand for different types of used products and someone is prepared to pay for them you can be sure recyclers will find ways of collecting them.
The future of recycling looks promising. More demand for used products means more recycling services to sort, collect, store and transport such products. Finding and servicing these markets will be easier for established and innovative recyclers. Volumes will increase which will make services more competitive and cheaper.
As we look ahead, the recycling industry looks an exciting industry to be involved in. We can’t stop progress and the circular economy will shortly replace the linear economy.