Shifting the shape from a linear to a circular economic model and what this may look like for business and consumers
We operate as consumers in a larger societal system that is built with a linear economy. The products that we buy are manufactured to be efficient and affordable to benefit us and secure a profit but are not built to last. In this linear model, materials are extracted for the product, sent to be manufactured, and are purchased and used before being disposed of (Recycling Council of British Columbia). There is a beginning and more importantly an end, which dictate the usability and the waste of the model.
The goal of this model is not saving and valuing resources but rather expending them reiteratively for profitability. Over time this naturally has resulted in the accumulation of waste and a lifestyle that is far beyond our means.
As the concept and need for sustainability becomes crystalized, we understand that we need to shift to a circular and restorative economy. Within a circular economy the materials themselves become much more valuable and important. They must be reused, repaired, recycled, and remanufactured with the understanding that there are limited resources and there is value in keeping them (RCBC).
I have heard a number of consumers who will recall when products were ‘better’, stating, ‘They don’t make (x) like they used to.’ Such individuals may have items of clothing or products from many years ago that they still keep fondly, taking pride in their quality, their use, and their durability. As products are made to be cheaper, we may expect those will not last. Even more expensive purchases that are supposedly quality offerings will break down, slow down considerably, or become outdated. Companies have taken advantage of the linear economy and its patterns. When consumers reach the end of the linear model they must reenter the model and rebuy that product. This stimulates the economy though consumer activity and consequently drives profits.
In some cases, consumers are not able to repair parts or update their machines and are forced to buy an entirely new product. Take a dishwasher for example. One day it no longer works, and someone comes by to check it out. The central control board is faulty but unfortunately the manufacturer no longer offers that part despite it has only been a few years since the purchase. The current dishwasher in its current state will no longer work and requires the purchase of an entirely new model. The other parts of the appliance are still viable, but with the linear model the dishwasher must be replaced as a whole.
It has become more common for manufactured items to break or to need repair, which is referred to as planned obsolescence (Sustainable Brands 2020). Some familiar examples are electronic products that will not work without updated software, apps, that have outdated chargers, dwindling life batteries, cords that deteriorate, or batteries that are difficult to replace (Sustainable Brands 2020). This could also look like automobile tires that wear out regularly or clothing that tears quickly and easily, requiring the consumer to repurchase the products that they need in their routines (Sustainable Brands 2020). The idea here is that a product will become obsolete or useless and create more demand.
As to be expected, material use in a circular and linear economy look different. The RCBC explains that technical and biological nutrients perform better if they are separated out and thus made accessible for reuse and redistribution in their own discrete forms. In a linear economy technical and biological materials are often combined, which makes high quality recovery difficult (RCBC). Everything is mixed up and it is harder to extract elements for reuse. In a circular economy technical materials are separated and easier to be recirculated, retaining their value as high quality materials (RCBC). The biological material in the circular economy instead of being combined with technical material will return to the earth and offer additional regenerative value (RCBC).
Making such a switch to a circular economic model requires a shift in how businesses operate and the nature of the products that they sell. This could look like an increase in access to products and services through renting (RCBC). By renting a tool that one may rarely use, the consumer does not have to buy an item with little value over time, such as a drill that they may only use periodically while moving. The business is able to make money off of the same item again and again and both consumer and business will place value on that item for its necessity.
This shift also requires an alteration in design. Such beneficial product are designed to be repaired and recovered by being able to be broken down for reuse of components for new products (RCBC). This would decrease the need for virgin material. Incorporating recycled material slows down the need to acquire new raw material and closes the loop on the circular model. Additionally, items that can be dissembled offer ease and flexibility for replacement (RCBC).
It may come as no surprise, but the circular economy would be fueled by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels (RCBC). Following the same pattern of a linear economic model, fossil fuels are extracted and expended. While they are becoming depleted, we still return to their source, relying on a diminishing resource that is harmful for continued use. Renewable energies inherently have the idea of a circular or cyclical model built in. This energy source can be acquired, stored, and used in ways that are regenerative and renewing. By harnessing resources such as the sun and the wind, energy can be produced in far less harmful ways with access that is viable for sustained future use.
The circular model offers a collaborative and resourceful way to produce and consume goods for longevity and the wellbeing of people and planet. It is able to replenish and restore the resources we have and need, and such a shift is imperative. In this model waste is the last resort instead of the end state, and where possible ‘waste’ should be used as a resource for another need, another business, another purpose. As a consumer this could look like seeking out products of higher quality that are more likely to last, renting items instead of buying, and reusing and repurposing. By supporting businesses that reuse, redistribute, and reduce waste consumers can create or establish demand within this model. What does being circular look like in your business and home? Until next week, stay savvy.
“Switching to a Circular Economy.” RCBC Circular Economy Infographic, Recycling Council of British Columbia , https://www.rcbc.ca/files/u6/RCBC%20Circular%20Economy%20Infographic.pdf
Poritz, Wesley. “Planned Obsolescence and Your Right to Repair.” Sustainable Brands, Sustainable Life Media, Inc., 31 Aug. 2020, sustainablebrands.com/read/defining-the-next-economy/planned-obsolescence-and-your-right-to-repair.