Circular economy: Rethink, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle

By understanding the concept of a circular economy, we can all make informed decisions about how materials are consumed and disposed of.

Learning

June 23, 2021

Highlights

In the natural world, nothing is wasted. Everything becomes the construction material for another life, and so can all the products that we consume.

Highlights

In the natural world, nothing is wasted. Everything becomes the construction material for another life, and so can all the products that we consume.

Authors: Charlotte Landini and Andrew Snedden, Cleanaway’s NSW Centre for Sustainability

(For a full list of references please contact the authors)

More than 100 billion tonnes of materials and resources entered the global economy in 2017 – used to produce food, make clothes and mobile phones, generate electricity, and build homes (Circular Economy, 2020). This is expected to double by 2060 (OECD, 2019). About one-third of this material was treated as waste, mostly going to landfill. Only 8.6% was recycled.

This is not sustainable. The Earth does not have an endless supply of resources. Sustainability research organisation, Global Footprint Network, estimates that we are already using more resources than the Earth can sustainably replace and we would need 1.6x Earths to sustain our current way of life. One path to make a sustainable future possible is with a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

Our current way of thinking uses a linear economy model: make – take – use – dispose. Use a mobile phone as an example. Every couple of years we upgrade our phone and put the old one in the bottom drawer – the resources are going to waste. But what if this phone could be recycled and the resources used again? An example of this is through MobileMuster’s accredited Product Stewardship Scheme. MobileMuster dismantles the phones and recovers all of the resources – keeping them in use for longer.

A circular economy is an economic system that aims to reduce waste and encourages the continual reuse and recycling of resources. It would ensure that every product, from mobile phones to construction materials to plastic bottles, is designed to become an input for other processes at the end of its life.

All material would be intended for use in a new product and made with longevity and quality in mind. Nature provides the perfect blueprint to achieve a circular economy. In the natural world, nothing is wasted. Everything becomes the construction material for another life, and so can all the products that we consume.

The key principles of a circular economy include:

  • Designing out waste and pollution
  • Reusing, repairing and recycling materials to keep them in use
  • Regenerating natural systems

Benefits of a circular economy

Reduce pressure on the environment: By designing out waste and ensuring all components in a consumable product can be easily recycled we reduce our reliance on virgin natural resources. This reduces our impact on the environment from the extraction of natural resources and allows our ecosystems to recover.

Reduce litter as pollution: When products come to the end of their life, instead of thinking of them as rubbish or waste, we can begin to think of them as a resource for another product. By viewing waste as a resource, the chance of it being discarded as litter and becoming pollution is reduced. Participating in Clean Up Australia Day or organising a Clean Up any day of the year, is a great way to Step Up to help minimise the impact that litter as pollution has on the environment.

Economic growth and job creation: A circular economy can lead to increased local job creation through new recycling and repairing ventures. This creates both entry-level and semi-skilled jobs in the community (World Economic Forum, 2014), as well as highly skilled and technical roles in technology and infrastructure development. Recent reports by global accounting firms estimate that a circular economy in Australia could be worth $2 trillion over the next 20 years (PwC, 2021) while contributing an additional $23 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025 (KPMG, 2020).

Who is responsible for a circular economy?

Everyone! We all can, and need, to contribute to a circular economy. Individuals can be consuming less, avoiding waste where possible, reusing, repairing, and recycling correctly. Read more below about exactly what we can do every day to encourage a circular economy in Australia.

Product designers and manufacturers can increase the potential for recycling of new products by choosing renewable and recyclable production materials, designing products to be easily repaired or dismantled for recycling and employing product stewardship models to ensure responsible recycling of their products occur.

They can also choose to incorporate recycled content into their products to create more markets for recycled material.

Retailers can ensure they are selling sustainable products as described above and sourcing products with reduced or sustainable packaging and set an example by reducing and recycling in-store waste.

The waste industry can continue to invest in education, technology and infrastructure to increase the amount of material that is recycled and diverted from landfill. And governments (local, state, and federal) can provide direction to the entire system through policy, legislation and funding to support everyone as we transition to a circular economy.

How can YOU contribute to a circular economy?

AVOID and REDUCE the amount of waste you make. The easiest way to do this is by buying less things. You can also make sustainable choices to avoid creating waste (like storing food properly or using reusable shopping bags) or reduce the amount of unrecyclable packaging you buy.

REUSE and REPAIR the things that you own. Resources online and ‘Reuse and Repair’ cafes can help individuals to extend the life of products with upcycling ideas and to help repair items.

RECYCLE plastic bottles and containers, glass bottles and jars, steel and aluminum cans, paper, and cardboard (they must all be clean, empty, and dry) in your kerbside recycling bin. Check for the Australasian Recycling Label on your packaging every time you are at the bin .

For other items:

  • Take the NSW Return and Earn Container Deposit Scheme as an example. Bottles and cans are now worth 10c, and instead of being littered, are being recycled through the scheme reducing drink container litter in NSW by 40% (NSW EPA, 2021)
  • Recycle soft plastics (plastic bags, chip bags, cling wrap) through the REDcycle program at supermarkets
  • Tricky items (such as e-waste, batteries, mobile phones, lightbulbs) can often be recycled at your local community recycling centre. Check with your local council.
  • Clothes and textiles can be downcycled at home as cleaning rags, upcycled to make something new or donated

COMPOST your food scraps. On average, 40% of the general waste bin is filled with food scraps every week. This goes to landfill where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas that has a negative impact on the environment. You can recycle your food scraps with a home compost bin, a worm farm, a bokashi bin, or your council’s Food Organics Garden Organics (FOGO) service if you have one.

BUY RECYCLED CONTENT. By purchasing products made from recycled material, you are helping to create a market for recycled materials. Check the packaging for the percentage of recycled material it contains.

Take your recycling to the next level

Many Australians are confused as to what goes into the recycling bin, with 32% of us finding it difficult to get clear instructions. Among parents trying to teach their children about recycling and sustainability, 25% don’t find it easy, and 17% say they do not have easily accessible tools to teach their kids. With children’s views on recycling and sustainability largely mirroring those of their parents, accurate information is critical not only for this generation, but also for the next.

To bridge this gap, Cleanaway created Greenius, a free e-learning platform dedicated to helping Australian households recycle better. Greenius brings learning to life through a variety of interactive and engaging formats such as games, videos and quizzes, with customised instructions relating to your state.

Greenius is also a great resource for educators looking to equip students with waste and recycling knowledge in the classroom.

Visit Greenius.com.au to learn now and begin your journey towards a circular economy.