What is the circular economy? Translating words into actions

What does the expression “circular economy” mean?

According to the definition by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is a regenerative industrial economy inspired by nature to actively improve and optimise the systems by which it operates. But let’s start from the beginning to understand more.

From the line to the circle: the new economic model that works

To understand well what the circular economy means, let’s start by defining the linear economy, the one we have used up to now.

The linear economy is an economic model based on “take, make and dispose”. It is a model that sees raw materials exploited to the full and the lowest possible price paid in order to produce as much as possible.

On the one hand, this system clashes with the limited natural resources, which, let’s remember, are not endless, and on the other hand with the strong environmental impact caused by the ever-increasing amount of waste produced.

This model is becoming less and less suited to the reality in which we live.

The circular economy, on the other hand, is an economic system based on “make, use and return”, in which all raw materials are re-used and waste does not exist.

In fact, the circular economy eliminates all types of waste, re-using waste that was previously burnt or sent to waste disposal sites, thus putting existing resources back into circulation without exploiting new ones. This is because the circular economy treats materials for what they really are: finished.

A new approach to the economy: how the circular economy works

The circular economy does not only refer to recyclable waste collection but is a concept that concerns individuals in their everyday lives and companies in their planning. 

We need to involve everyone in order to improve the use of resources and consciously approach the use of raw materials and the production of products and waste.

The circular economy is the conceptual and practical tool for imagining virtuous products and production processes with significant social and environmental advantages.

Adopting a circular approach means:

  1. designing and creating versatile products, which can be dismantled and restructured, thinking immediately of their use at the end of their life;
  2. abandoning fossil fuels and embracing renewable sources in order toproduce energy;
  3. re-examining everything, the whole system, and the cause and effect relationship between the various components;
  4. prioritising the use of secondary raw materials instead of virgin raw materials.

The advantages of the circular economy

Shifting to a more circular economy can lead to a number of advantages:

  • consumer products with a longer life;
  • economic savings for companies;
  • fewer overall greenhouse gas emissions;
  • a lower impact on the environment from our activities;
  • higher availability of raw materials;
  • a larger number of people employed.

The circular economy does not propose adjustments to reduce the environmental impact created by the linear economy but represents a change in the system. Considering and achieving such an economy is initially costly because it requires the re-programming of supply chains and products, which need to be designed for re-use several times over. It is, however, an investment that is repaid over time thanks to the functioning of the virtuous circle, in which resources and results are well-balanced.

Aside from the costs, another just as fundamental aspect for a transition towards ecological economics is our mentality. We continue to grow in number and consume: if we continue as we have done so far from point A to point B on a straight line, we risk coming to an end just like our resources.

We need to re-think our systems and re-design our future: from the design phase to the production phase, consumption and re-using materials at the end of their life cycle.

The circular economy is economic growth that improves the quality of life while respecting the ecosystem. Let’s not stand back but rather let’s become players in this huge circle.