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14.5 Waste: Circular Economy

Author: Nadia Kudritska

ABSTRACT: Circular Economy is creating a closed loop system without waste.

Image credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation


Kenneth Boulding started with ‘open economy’ versus a ‘closed economy’. Later in 1989, David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner highlighted that linear-economics is designed to treat the environment as a dumping ground. As such, they advocated for recycling. In 19736, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday created a vision of a looped economy, and showed the opportunities, like jobs, that come with it. The idea was for the focus to shift to selling services over products. By doing this, products are longer lasting and reused.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded in 2009 and is the most prominent holder of what is a circular economy today. Older civilizations exemplified a circular economy as it was unaffordable to be wasteful with resources. Even more fundamental, circular ‘economy’ is seen in nature through systems like the: water cycle or carbon cycle. Of course, they’ve been distributed due to man’s intervention. For example, now, micro-plastics and acidic fluids have become part of the water cycle.


Circular Economy is a system that desires to get rid of waste and put resources in a continuous loop of regeneration. Ideas like reusing, reducing, recycling, repairing, refurnishing, remanufacturing, redistributing and sharing are key cornerstones of the circular economy. Ultimately reducing the resource input into the economy as much as possible to create little-to-no waste. This goes for materials and energy alike. Directly opposite to the linear-economy of ‘take-make-waste.’ Not only should the resources used be in a looped system, but what is inputted is replaced (in nature), to not just protect but made to thrive. Once an item has outlived its lifetime, even after multitude of reinvented purposes, it should be able to return to soil. This is called a biological material.

Unlike the many one-use packaging used around every product today. If it is not possible for a material to decompose, like plastic, it should be continuously cycled. This is called a Technical material. The benefits of a closed cycle are: economic growth by causing an increase in revenue, lower production costs, and changing the supply and demand chain; saving costs (over time); creating job opportunities in high-skill remanufacturing facilities, while price goes down, spending goes up, more space for innovative entrepreneurship and new service jobs. This system would help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and use less primary resources and materials.


The idea of a circular economy sounds like an unachievable utopia. Many are skeptical that a fully looped economy is even possible. Most materials have a limit to how many times it can be recycled. There is also the issue that for many business models this is not a desirable system, simply because it’s expensive. And even if it wasn’t an issue, it’s still extremely hard to start up a company with this closed loop cycle. Some argue that the advantages of non-recyclable materials outweigh the advantages of a recyclable counterpart in the long run when considering there is no international standard for these things (yet). To use natural materials would sometimes ask for a tradeoff of a safer material. A circular society must also agree to function locally and not have the laborious work done overseas for cheap prices. Many might not be interested in doing the labour in their communities. And generally creating the needed infrastructure for recycled and mending plants requires lots of funding, which is difficult to collect.


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David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner (1989). Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment. Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Su, Biwei; Heshmati, Almas; Geng, Yong; Yu, Xiaoman (2012). “A review of the circular economy in China: moving from rhetoric to implementation”. Journal of Cleaner Production. 42: 215–227. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2012.11.020.

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