What is the circular economy?

A new way to design, make, and use things within planetary boundaries

By The Ellen Macarthur Foundation

A transformation in our ability to make things changed society.

We’ve been at a turning point before. In 1684 Thomas Savery invented the steam engine and it changed everything. This invention kick-started the industrial revolution, which transformed our ability to make things. Raw materials and energy were seemingly infinite, and labour was readily available. For the first time in history, goods were mass produced.

How this looks today?

We turn resources into an extraordinary number of products

Since the industrial revolution, the rapid pace of technological progress has continued. The resulting innovations mean that many now have access to products from all over the world at affordable prices. These products have brought many of us levels of material comfort unimaginable to previous generations.

Our way of doing things is reaching its limits

The current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment. We take resources from the ground to make products, which we use, and, when we no longer want them, throw them away. Take-make-waste. We call this a linear economy.

We are disrupting the system

The linear economy has to change. We must transform all the elements of the take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet. The next generation  of pioneers are disrupting the current system from within. 

The following three principles are the foundations of a new system:

  • Design out waste and pollution

Did you know that waste and pollution are largely a result of the way we design things? Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage where around 80% of environmental impacts are determined. By changing our mindsets to view waste as a design flaw and harnessing new materials and technologies, we can ensure that waste and pollution are not created in the first place.

  • Keep products and materials in use

What is we could build an economy that uses things rather than uses them up? We can’t keep wasting resources. Products and materials must be kept in the economy. We can design some products and components so they can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. But making things last forever is not the only solution. When it comes to products like food or packaging, we should be able to get the materials back so they don’t end up in landfill.

  • Regenerate natural systems

What is we could not only protect but actively improve the environment? In nature there is no concept of waste. Everything is food for something else – a leaf that falls from a tree feeds the forest. Instead of simply trying to do less harm we should aim to do good. By returning valuable nutrients to the soil and other ecosystems, we can enhance our natural resources.

It’s called the circular economy

The circular economy is a new way to design, make, and use things within planetary boundaries.

Shifting the system involves everyone and everything: businesses, governments, and individuals; our cities, our products, and our jobs. By designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems we can reinvent everything.

So, what can I do?

With new ways of thinking we can redesign the system. Continue learning about the circular economy and the role that you can play in accelerating the shift.

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About the Author

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is a charity committed to creating a circular economy, a new economic system in which we design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. 

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