Take, make, use, dispose. For centuries, this has been the standard approach to production and consumption. Companies take raw materials and transform them into products, which are purchased and used by consumers, who ultimately toss them out, creating waste. Increasingly, people are starting to challenge the sustainability of this model. Many — including the EU and the governments of China, Japan and the U.K. — argue that we should ditch this linear system in favor of a so-called circular economy of take, make, use, reuse and reuse again and again.
The phrase “circular economy” pops up in the work of a few resource economists dating back at least to the 1980s. Its use in recent years has come to connote an approach to the reuse of produced goods and materials that’s more systemic and ambitious than recycling. In nature, there is no waste because “everything is a resource for something else,” architect and green thought-leader Bill McDonough has written. Seventies-era recycling only takes you so far, activists and companies are concluding. For example, to maintain quality, plastic bottle makers need to blend recycled plastic with virgin material. A startup in Los Angeles called Replenish offers a line of cleaning supplies intended to reduce the need for plastic bottles in the first place. Cleaning agents are sold as pods to be inserted in reusable bottles that the consumer simply fills with water at home.
Making a production cycle fully self-sufficient is virtually impossible. Some new input will always be necessary, and some waste will always be created. Recycling paper over and over, for example, produces paper of increasingly low quality. Eventually, it can’t be reused and new paper needs to be made. Also, building a circular economy can entail high upfront costs, for example to redesign a product or to switch from easily-obtainable resources to recycled materials. The U.K. estimates the cost of shifting to a circular economy to be around 3 percent of gross domestic product.