Eliminate waste and pollution
The first principle of the circular economy is to eliminate waste and pollution....
There are a number of ways products and materials can be kept in circulation and it is helpful to think about two fundamental cycles – the and the . In the technical cycle, products are reused, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled. In the biological cycle, biodegradable materials are returned to the earth through processes like and .
The most effective way of retaining the value of products is to maintain and them. Take a phone for example: it is far more valuable as a phone than as a pile of components and materials. So the first steps in the technical cycle are focused on keeping products whole to retain the maximum possible value. This could include business models based on sharing, so users get access to a product rather than owning it and more people get to use it over time. It could involve reuse through resale. It could mean cycles of maintenance, repair, and refurbishment.
Eventually, when the product can no longer be used, its components can be remanufactured. Parts that cannot be remanufactured can be broken down into their constituent materials and recycled. While recycling is the option of last resort because it means the embedded value in products and components are lost, it is vitally important as the final step that allows materials to stay in the economy and not end up as waste.
Biodegradable materials that cannot be reused, like some food byproducts, can be circulated back into the economy in the biological cycle. By composting or anaerobically digesting organic materials, valuable nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and micronutrients, can be used to help regenerate the land so we can grow more food or like cotton and wood.
Some products, like cotton clothing or wooden furniture, can be circulated through both the technical and biological cycle. They can be maintained, reused, repaired, and sometimes even recycled, but eventually they can be returned to the biological cycle from which they came. Composted or anaerobically digested, they can feed the soil to grow new cotton or wood.
In order for products to successfully be circulated in either the biological or the technical cycle, it is essential they have been designed with their eventual circulation in mind. There are many products in our current economy that cannot be circulated in either cycle and end up as waste. There are products that fuse technical and biological materials in such a way that we can’t separate them and circulate them – for example, textiles that blend natural and plastic fibres.
If designers thought about how their product could fit into the technical or biological cycles after use, that product could be made with that onward path in mind. For example, products destined for technical cycles would benefit from being easy to repair and maintain, easy to take apart, and made of modular components that can be replaced. They could be durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of many users. And they could be made from materials that are easily recycled.
If products like wooden furniture were designed – as well as to be easy to maintain and repair – with the biological cycle in mind, their biodegradable materials (like wood) would be easily separated from their technical materials (like screws) and if glues and paints were used they would be biodegradable. Other products, like takeaway food containers, can be designed to be compostable after one use so that they increase the chances of the food scraps they contain returning to the soil.
There are many innovative companies already designing their products with recirculation in mind. Ecovative makes compostable packaging from agricultural byproducts (the parts of crops that cannot be eaten) and mycelium (mushroom roots). The packaging works like expanded polystyrene to protect fragile items in transit, but it is from a renewable source and does not contribute to plastic waste. Mycelium is a fungal network of threadlike cells that acts like a natural, self-assembling glue. It grows in 5-7 days without needing any light or water, digesting agricultural by-products and binding into any shape needed. At the end of the process, the material goes through a dehydration and heat treating process to stop the growth and to ensure the absence of spores or allergens. Once used, it can be safely composted and returned to the soil.
Resortecs has developed an innovative solution to improve the recycling of stitched clothes such as jeans and jackets that need to be taken apart before their constituent materials can be recycled. The existing disassembly process is time-consuming and costly, as the garment and its components are held together by a synthetic high-strength thread – in most cases made of polyester. Before recycling, the pieces of the garment have to be separated and the thread removed, otherwise the quality of the recycled product will be compromised. Resortecs has designed a dissolvable thread, making the disassembly process easier and helping to keep textiles in the economy.
Resortecs threads are dissolved using a commercial oven and are available for different melting-points (150C, 170C and 200C) depending on the type of garment that is being taken apart. The Resortecs solution allows up to 500 kg of clothing to be dismantled at the same time.
Many companies are adopting reusable packaging as a way to keep materials in circulation. Loop, which operates in France, the UK, and the US, is a reuse platform that offers big brand products, such as Tide detergent and Heinz Ketchup, in reusable packaging. When a container is empty, there is no need for the customer to clean or sort it. It is either collected from their home or can be dropped off at participating stores. The containers are then professionally cleaned, refilled, and used again.
By adopting the second principle of the circular economy – circulate products and materials – we retain the value embedded in products and the materials they are made from. By doing so, we keep in the economy and out of the environment, and safely return biodegradable materials to the earth.