What is a Circular Economy?
Updated: Apr 14
As you may have noticed, our organization is going beyond recycling and embracing the circular economy. This shift was motivated by the recognition that recycling, on its own, is not enough. Waste is a big problem, and our current system for managing it isn’t sustainable from an economic, social, or environmental perspective. The circular economy is the solution—but what is the circular economy, anyway?
We’re here to answer that question! We’re going to help you understand the circular economy, your role in it, and how you can re-evaluate the ways you create, use, and dispose of waste.
Definition: a circular economy is a system that eliminates waste by using materials endlessly.
Watch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's detailed beginner's guide to get you started with the circular economy.
Throwaway Culture & the Linear Economy
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the circular economy, we need to talk about our current system and why it’s a problem. We like to call our current materials system a linear system (aka throwaway culture) because we take raw materials, make them into products, use them once or for a short period of time, and throw them away. Take, make, waste.
So what’s the big deal? It might be kind of gross and possibly even smell bad, but once you throw your trash in the dumpster, it goes away—out of sight, out of mind, right?
Problems with the Linear Economy
Landfills & Incinerators
Trash doesn’t just go away when you put it in the bin. In the US, we have two main ways to dispose of trash (that isn’t composted, recycled, or otherwise reused)—landfilling and incineration. Both of these options cause pollution that contaminates our air, water, and soil—and not just that of those who live near these facilities. Incineration can release toxic substances such as lead, mercury, particulate matter (which can cause asthma, lung disease, cancer, and heart damage), and other chemicals into the air and water. Landfills can also leak toxic chemicals into our water systems, oftentimes the very water systems we drink from. Thanks to federal legislation, landfills have done a lot to mitigate pollution. But, the potential for leaks still exists.
The burden of pollution is not distributed equally. Incinerators and landfills are often located in communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, and areas where other marginalized groups live. This means that even though all people create waste, most of the pollution falls on already disadvantaged folks. And even if you don’t live near a landfill or incinerator, the interconnected nature of our air and waterways means that pollution in one part of the country can and does travel to other areas, as well.
On top of pollution, waste and materials disposal make up a substantial chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, generating 163.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions yearly in the United States—the same amount of emissions generated by 35.6 million cars. For reference, there are 2.3 million vehicles in Indiana. Landfills alone are the third-largest generator of methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than carbon dioxide. All of these emissions contribute to climate change.
Limited Natural Resources
Everything we use and buy takes natural resources to produce—many of which are finite resources in limited supply. This includes not only the resources needed to make the physical product, but also the hidden energy and water that that go into producing, distributing, and using those products. For example, you might think about a bottle of water as 12 oz of water. But, it takes nearly 1.5 gallons of water to make the plastic bottle holding the water.
In addition to environmental problems, disposing of waste is, quite literally, throwing valuable materials, economic activity, and jobs in the trash. You heard that right: keeping materials out of the trash creates jobs.
Waste isn’t just something to get rid of—it has value. One great example of the value in our waste is recycling. In 2020, recycling generated over $5 trillion dollars in economic impact and fueled 22,000 jobs in the state of Indiana alone. Yet Indiana’s current recycling rate is only 19.1%. We need to stop thinking about materials as disposable, or something that only has use for a few years—or days, or even minutes. We should see materials as valuable commodities that can be used to make new and useful products over and over again.
Recycling alone creates 10 times as many jobs as landfilling or incinerating trash. Think about it this way—it takes only one step to get your trash from your bin to the landfill (pick it up and dump it out), but recycling takes many steps (sorting, transporting, processing materials, and making new products). That’s why many more people and jobs are involved. Read more about recycling and job creation in our 2013 Job Study.
The Solution: A Circular Economy
Reduce, reuse, recycle. That’s a phrase we've heard all our lives, but they're not the only Rs in the waste management system. The circular economy introduces additional Rs, like: refuse, repair, redesign, rethink—and by expanding on these concepts, we can flip the concept of waste on its head.
The circular economy is a broader approach to solving our current take, make, and waste system. Instead of creating waste, a circular economy works to keep materials in continuous use by designing waste out of the system entirely. Materials become a resource—a valuable feedstock to make new products rather than a nuisance to dispose of.
4 Principles to a Circular Economy:
We describe the circular economy as embodying these priorities:
Eliminate waste and pollution
Keep valuable materials in-use
Develop equity throughout our materials system
One way to think about the circular economy is like a forest. A forest is a closed system—trees grow out of the soil and drop their leaves every fall. Those leaves break down and compost, putting valuable nutrients back into the soil that are used to grow more trees.
In a circular economy, the materials used to make products are not wasted or thrown away, but are used, reused, and rethought continuously, just like the nutrients in a forest. Nothing is lost, and the value stays in the system—closing the loop.
Recycling & the Circular Economy
Recycling is an important part of the circular economy, and making new products from recycled materials is one way to keep materials in use. But recycling doesn’t go far enough—not all materials are recyclable and it places a heavy burden on you, the consumer, to solve our waste problem.
The circular economy places a higher value on rethinking the way we interact with materials to eliminate waste before it is created, to re-design products to be durable, reusable or recyclable, and to repair or remanufacture rather than making something new.
So yes, please recycle. But don’t stop there. You should always rethink, reduce, repair, or reuse however you can before recycling.
How You Can Get Involved
Changing the way we view waste is no easy task, but it starts with education. That’s why Circular Indiana is bridging the gap between the everyday Hoosier and complex waste concepts, like the circular economy. We know you’ll have questions, and we encourage you to learn more by checking out our resources. Here’s how you can get connected to those resources:
Follow our social media channels (@CircularIndiana) to discover everyday actions you can take to reduce your impact and participate in the circular economy
Sign up for our newsletter to get behind-the-scenes of the circular economy in Indiana and learn about upcoming events and programs
If you still have questions contact us—we’re always here to help out!
Your support allows us to continue this important work. Donate or become a member today—what you give comes back to you!
If you’re still hungry for more about the circular economy, we recommend checking out this podcast series on the circular economy from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.