WHAT DO WE MEAN BY A "CIRCULAR ECONOMY"?
WHY FOCUS ON LOCAL CIRCULAR ECONOMIES?
At the facility scale, a circular system can be described as conventional waste streams from one process being repurposed as inputs for another, creating a circular, closed-loop model of material reuse.
Plant Chicago describes a local circular economy as a collaborative economic practice sustained by local circulation of materials, nutrients, knowledge, and money. It’s empowered by transparency, diversity, and inclusion.
LINEAR VS CIRCULAR
At the material level, local circular systems offer more opportunities for business-to-business waste synergies (such as brewery waste to mushrooms, carbon dioxide to growing), as well as inculcating a sense of shared interest in success. At the moment, the circular economy movement is hyper-focused on global resource scarcity. Some of the largest multi-national companies are rethinking the ways they can become more circular in their operations, which is a necessary step for systemic change.
What gets left out when we focus on the macro level, however, are the role of small businesses, ecosystems, and even equity. Viewing circular economies through a local lens forefronts small businesses, ecosystems and social justice, all of which are crucial components of a circular economy. If we fail to include these as we transition to a circular system, we are at risk of perpetuating the same economic and environmental injustices in our current linear system.
Adapted from PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency: themasites.pbl.nl/circular-economy/
A linear system is designed to send materials in one direction, ending either in a landfill or deposited into the environment in a state where it is hard to recapture (often with harmful impacts). Often referred to as the culture of “take, make, dispose,” a linear system is highly effective when extracting new materials from the earth and ineffective in its ability to recapture them.
Our linear economic system cannot be sustained. There are certain resources that we cannot “make” again. Take fossil fuels for example; an argument can be had about when they will run out, but not if they will run out. By acknowledging the immediate scarcity of some materials, (phosphate rock, rare earth metals, fossil fuels, sand, etc) we are recognizing that we have to plan for the day we can no longer extract “new” materials out of the earth.
Our current linear system is based on perceived abundance of materials, resources, and nutrients. The case for circular systems then rests on the reality of resource scarcity as well as the environmental problems that come with the extraction of new materials. At its essence, the concept of a circular economy is meant to tackle the following problem: we live in a world of finite resources yet we are operating as if there are infinite resources to “consume”.