We live in an inherently wasteful system. It follows a linear production logic which typically goes like this:
- extracting resources from the Earth,
- creating products out of virgin materials,
- using products for a short period of time,
- throwing everything on a giant trash pile.
The model is utterly unsustainable, a fact we are reminded of each year by the Earth Overshoot Day. It marks the date the Earth can no longer regenerate the natural resources humans extract from it. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29. It means that we’d exhausted Earth's budget for the year in less than eight months. It also means that we would need the resources of 1.7 Earths to continue living the way we do.
Clearly, the lifestyle of modern consumers falls well outside the planetary boundaries and has brought us into a grip of an ecological emergency.
The waste problem
There are many consequences of the throwaway culture. One of the grimmest is the massive piles of trash that have accumulated over the past decades. The average household in the UK, for example, produces more than a tonne of waste every year. Plastic, especially, is inescapable. Simply washing our clothes, about 60 percent of which is made of synthetic fibers — releases hundreds of thousands of microfibers into the water supply. (Check our article on microfiber pollution and learn what you can do to help stop it.)
Moreover, most waste doesn’t even make it to the landfill. By some estimates, a whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled. Instead, trash pollutes the land or swirls in the ocean. There could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050, shows another study.
But even trash that is properly disposed of doesn’t sit in the junkyard all nice and cute. Landfills themselves pose a serious environmental risk. In the U.S., they’re responsible for 17 percent of the methane emissions (third-largest source, according to the EPA). Toxins from cleaning products and batteries often leach into the soil. When it rains the toxins run off into the groundwater, polluting waterways and oceans.
Recycling is only a small part of the solution
What can we do about it? Recycling first springs to mind. Separating and processing waste undoubtedly plays into the sustainability equation. It’s possibly the easiest way to reduce the extraction of virgin materials which is a highly energy-intensive process. Production of aluminum from recycled metal, for example, saves 90 percent of energy, compared to its raw alternative. Yes, recycling still consumes energy, but it’s a far better option than taking out natural resources for every new thing we produce.
We should all keep the enthusiasm for recycling and, if we can, step it up a notch. The untapped potential for recycling is huge (which is also a bit concerning). Currently, 75 percent of the American waste stream is recyclable, but only 30 percent is ultimately recycled, according to the EPA. Globally, the volumes are almost minuscule. Only about 9 percent of all plastic waste on Earth is recycled.
Recycling alone, however, won’t dig us out of the trash hole anyway. On the individual level, we’ll have to change our basic consumption patterns. Simply put, we’ll need to buy less and especially avoid products with single-use packaging. Reusing and repairing stuff we already have also plays an important part as does composting what we cannot recycle. These basic tenants of sustainable life are neatly stacked as five R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse (and repair), recycle and rot.
The waste problem is bigger than it seems - we need systemic change
But here is the hard truth. Even as you do your best to reduce and reuse, recycle and compost, the waste you see in the trash is only a tiny part of the waste problem. Households are supposedly responsible for merely 3 percent of waste, while industries that extract resources and create stuff produce the other 97 percent (these numbers often appear in literature, such as Garbage Land book). Timber, agricultural, mining and petroleum industries are considered most wasteful.
The bottom line: our reliance on mass-produced stuff from virgin materials and excessive consumerism pose a serious threat to the environment, food chains, biodiversity and human well-being. To make sure there’s enough food, water and prosperity for future generations, we need radical changes. We need to switch from a linear to a circular economy.
Enter circular economy and zero waste: definition, benefits, examples
Navigating the sustainability universe can be confusing. So let’s first decode the popular buzzwords: zero waste, circular economy and closed-loop.
Zero waste is an aspiration of writing trash out of existence. It was born as a consumer-led, grassroots movement of individuals and businesses countering the mainstream throwaway culture. The first and foremost tenet of zero waste is preventing waste from existing in the first place. It encourages a lifestyle that reduces the amount of stuff sent to landfills or incinerators. Over the past few years, a growing number of zero-waste stores have sprouted up around across around the world. Some major brands are also getting on board.
If zero waste is a higher goal, a circular economy is how we get there. A circular economy is an economic model that spans supply chains and sectors. It redefines the process of product design, manufacturing, and consumption grounds up. Circular economy champions the design of closed-loop systems. That means that raw materials remain in the supply chain—or in the loop. We capture material that we now bury or burn to make new products.
Nature itself is the model for circularity — where everything that dies is broken down into nutrients that feed new life. The good people at zerowaste.com nicely explained the circular system with an analogy of a garden: “Your garden is full of plants that are native to the region. There are flowers and plants that naturally repel local pests. To water the veggies and fruit you only use greywater from your sink or rainwater that you collect. Once you eat the food, you use the waste to compost the garden and provide nutrients for the next growing season, using carefully maintained tools that are repaired and reused year after year.”
Circular economy: Good for the environment, good for the economy
A circular economy churns out products made of materials that can be classified into one of two material flows: biological and technological.
The biological cycle covers materials that naturally biodegrade and can be returned to the ecological system. Natural fibres are an example of such materials. The technology cycle, on the other hand, encompasses metals, oil-based plastics and chemicals. These are valuable materials that can be recycled or reused producing the same or better quality in closed-loop systems.
A circular economy is not only the right thing to do, it also makes a lot of economic sense. A McKinsey analysis, part of a major study with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, demonstrated that such an approach could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent by 2030, generating cost savings of 600 billion euro a year and 1800 billion euro more in other economic benefits.
Best examples of circular business models
Armed with the confidence that future prosperity will be attained with the circularity of our economies, a growing number of organizations started redefining their (business) processes to better pursue sustainability goals. Let’s look at some of the most exciting examples.
PlanetCare: how we give microfibers a new life
The principles of circular economy are at the heart of our work. PlanetCare runs the first and to date the only return-and-reuse scheme in the microfiber filter industry. We reuse 95 percent of our filters and repurpose the other five percent.
Here’s how it works: once the filters are full (typically after 20 loads) we encourage PlanetCare users to return the filters and the cartridges in a supplied box with a pre-paid postage. We schedule pick-up and send new filters the other way. Users have no additional costs with the returns. It’s all part of our overall service.
Andrej Kržan, PlanetCare’s co-founder and chief scientist explains the advantages. “Firstly, you don't have to clean the filters yourself. You simply dry them a bit and send the whole thing to PlanetCare. And even more importantly, we make sure that the caught microfibers don't end up in the environment.”
Microfibres don’t belong in the waste. Incineration or landfilling are out of the question. So what can we do with them? “We disassemble the cartridge and remove the filtering medium (made of thermoplastic polyester) that comes meshed with microfibers,” Andrej explains the first step. The process is conducted in a controlled environment, ensuring that the tiny fibers can’t escape and pollute water and the environment. The cartridges are also refurbished and used again.
Every returned filter is then safely stored in our warehouses. Once we’ll have enough material, microfibers will be reused and recycled. »We need at least 500 kg to start reusing them,” says Kržan.
What new life will these microfibers help create? The sky is the limit. One of the possibilities that we’ve identified is converting microfibers into insulation mats. “But we are continuously searching for other viable solutions with our partners,” adds Kržan.
IKEA: becoming a circular business by 2030
The Swedish furniture giant is also placing circularity at its core. Just recently, for example, IKEA introduced a buy-back program. Customers from almost 30 countries can sell the used furniture back to IKEA and receive gift vouchers in return. The Swedes say they will resell, recycle or donate the used furniture. IKEA is also aiming to become a circular business by 2030. According to the company’s sustainability report, more than 60 percent of the product range is already based on renewable materials and more than 10 percent contains recycled content. “Our ambition is that by 2030, all plastic used in our products will be based on renewable or recycled material,” they’ve promised.
Loop: shop popular products zero-waste
From giants to start-ups: Loop, a company founded in 2019, is focused on helping consumers live a zero-waste lifestyle. They offer popular products –Tide, Pantene and Häagen-Dazs goodies - in reusable containers. These are made of highly durable and sustainable materials, such as stainless steel, aluminium, and glass. On top of that, the packaging has a minimum threshold of ten reuse cycles. Loop says it creates a 35 percent lower environmental impact compared to regular e-commerce businesses.
Schneider Electric: the big industry is on board
French industry conglomerate Schneider Electric is also big on circularity. They use recycled materials, implement leasing and pay-per-use to prolong the lifespan of products, and have introduced take-back schemes. Its circular activities now account for 12 percent of Schneider’s revenue and have been estimated to save 100,000 metric tons of primary resources between 2018 and 2020. The French multinational, which employs 142,000 people in more than 100 countries, aims to become free from single-use plastic and largely zero-waste by 2025.
HYLA Mobile: giving smartphones a second life
HYLA Mobile works with many of the world’s leading manufacturers and service providers to repurpose and reuse either the devices themselves or their components. It’s estimated that more than 50 million devices have been reused, making $4 billion for their owners and stopping 6,500 tons of e-waste ending up in landfills.
Austin: noticeable impact on local economy
The city of Austin in Texas wants to divert 90 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040. They use a "whole system" approach to evaluate and manage the flow of resources and waste created by their communities. They are looking for ways to reduce consumption, cut down on trash at the source, while aiming for no waste to be burned or buried. Austin’s focus on the circular economy has a reported positive impact on the local economy – the city estimates that it generates around 6,300 jobs in recycling, reuse and reduction fields.
Let us know what zero waste means to you
The bottom line is that we desperately need a more sustainable model of production and consumption. One where trash continuously circles back and becomes raw material for new products.
Moving to a circular economy is imperative for today’s world. Instead of an endless, excessive cycle of consumerism, we need an economic system that better reflects our values and benefits the planet.
We believe that each of us plays a role in this tectonic shift - from policymakers, businesses to consumers. We also know for a fact that the PlanetCare community already closely follows circular principles and zero-waste tenets. Let us know in the comments how you apply them in your day-to-day life.