Beyond the 3 Rs: Understanding zero-waste and the circular economy.

Image by fdecomite | flickr.com

Image by fdecomite | flickr.com

Recently, governments, businesses, and families across Canada have been promoting ‘zero-waste’ practices as a means to help reduce the nation’s overall environmental impact.  There are many ways Canadian consumers can embrace zero-waste habits: by practicing the 3 R’s, limiting the amount of packaged products purchased, and choosing to compost food scraps instead of tossing them in the trash.  This ‘zero-waste’ stuff seems fairly straightforward, right?

Enter the term ‘circular economy’.  Never heard of it before?  You’re not alone.

To strive towards a circular economy is essentially a more sophisticated way of restating the goals of a zero-waste system.  The ultimate goal of a circular economy is to achieve a restorative system, throughout which materials and products are utilized for the greatest amount of time possible, and are then repurposed or handled of in a socially, economically, and environmentally responsible fashion.  A simple example: Ricoh, a company that leases photocopying equipment to businesses, collects, dismantles, and reassembles tools to re-enter the market.  (See their brilliantly designed version of a circular economy here).  Consider this in contrast to a linear economy, best described as the ‘make-use-dispose’ system we are most familiar with today, producing waste every step of the way.

I think that promoting and achieving a circular economy has tremendous potential for all sectors.  It creates vast opportunities for innovation, creative design, and the ability to revamp the grossly unsustainable societies we inhabit – the same societies that we, as youth, have been immersed in for virtually our entire lives thus far.  (Yet ironically, our generation may be the biggest unintentional advocates of the circular economy – more on this later).     

As with most novel concepts, challenges will inevitably arise while attempting to bring the fundamentals of the circular economy to light throughout the nation.  From my brief involvement with conversations surrounding the idea of a circular economy (particularly in the Metro Vancouver region), I have provided a brief list of potential best practices as it pertains to establishing the concept in action:

1.     Modify the terminology.  

For many people, the word ‘economy’ involuntarily paints a certain (usually unfavourable) picture – a picture full of dollar signs.  Although the economy in this sense is an integral part of obtaining a circular economy, integrating the overall purpose into the title might not be such a bad idea. I will be the first to complain about the overuse (not to mention misuse), and thus public desensitization of related words and phrases such as ‘sustainable’ (extracted from ‘sustainable purchasing’), but I do believe that more relatable terminology is necessary.  Perhaps a unique combination or selection of ‘circular recovery’, ‘interconnected repurposing’, or ‘upstream life-cycle planning’ could be viable options for helping to communicate the right idea of a circular economy.

2.     Commit to sustainable procurement policies. 

(Forget my insult towards ‘sustainable’ for the purposes of this point).  Businesses and organizations are notorious for creating lengthy guidelines for environmental initiatives – environmentally-conscious purchasing included – just to sit around and collect dust.  Find opportunities for real savings with investment in circular economy practices, and then ensure these get the attention of upper management.  The Municipal Collaboration for Sustainable Purchasing (MCSP) is a great starting place for Canadian organizations looking to implement sustainable procurement into their day-to-day operations.  Documents on the shelf are of no use – they’ve got to be used in practice!

3.     Create pressure for companies to implement sustainable procurement practices. 

Consumers have more power than they probably realize.  Be picky about what you buy – a little research can go a long way in terms of purchasing.  Employees can also influence their own organization’s purchasing patterns by choosing to support sustainable procurement, but also choosing to work for environmentally responsible companies choosing to challenge status-quo purchasing practices and integrating circular economy concepts into their operations. 

4.     Emphasize long-term incentives. 

Sure, the price of biodegradable forks and knives for office birthday cake celebrations may be more expensive than the plastic variety today, but what about benefits down the road?  Of course, this is a more trivial example compared to switching an entire company to recycled paper for office use or choosing to produce zero landfill waste.  Regardless, is it imperative that organizations perform realistic calculations on the financial and ecological benefits of diverting from a linear economy framework to a system built on sharing and eliminating waste.

5.     Involve younger generations. 

Present the circular economy theory to a group of Boomers.  Then present it to a group of Millennials.  Wait to see which generation is more open to the idea of sharing instead of owning, reusing instead of disposing, and being a part of paradigm shift to change the meaning of the ‘waste’ (DIY Pinterest crafts, anyone?!).  In most cases, younger generations have the mindset to lead the circular economy movement.  Younger people, as a whole, are already used to borrowing or leasing everything ranging from big-ticket items like apartments and cars, to generic household items like kitchen appliances and tools.  Because we tend to own fewer things, we already take advantage of services such as car sharing programs.  (In one study, Canadians were actually over represented in the 25 to 34 year-old age group car sharing participants).  Leadership for the circular economy is likely to come from this up-and-coming generation of citizens.

Achieving a circular economy is important for the long-term sustainability of the things we produce, use, and part with on a daily basis.  Developing inventive ways to incorporate it into our daily lives creates vast opportunities for creative design and implementation - it's time to take advantage of these possibilities!