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Could these innovators spur a much-needed revolution in the way we make things?

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Aug 23, 2016

Lightbulb with tree inside

We generally take the linear model of production — where humans “take, make and dispose” –for granted. This model is a relatively recent creation of the Industrial Revolution. With a far smaller world population and vast tracts of sparsely inhabited land, the eighteenth century saw the environment as possessing near limitless ability to absorb the waste products of modernity.

Centuries later, with billions more people on the planet, we’ve run out of places to send our waste materials. It has become abundantly clear that the linear take-make-waste model cannot work on a finite planet without serious impacts on human and environmental health.

Some visionary researchers and business leaders are taking steps to move industry from this unsustainable model. They’re working to create what’s known as a “circular economy”, where the concept of waste disappears, and materials can be turned endlessly into new useful products.

This concept underlies the familiar recycling symbol, though it’s not an entirely accurate representation of how recycling works in practice. When we recycle, materials are typically “downcycled” into lesser-quality products until they eventually become waste. While it’s certainly preferable to turn plastic bottles into carpets before sending those materials to the landfill, recycling as we know it today isn’t actually circular. Recycling helps reduce waste by forestalling the manufacture of new products, but recycled materials eventually end up as waste.

Closing the Loop

Our linear economic model becomes more unsustainable every day, as those elements vital to life — air, water, and soil — become increasingly polluted with toxins. What if there was a better way? Thankfully there is, and more businesses are pursuing it every year.

Green design is slowly changing the way we make things. From materials to buildings to entire communities and distribution chains, those seeking smarter ways to support human pursuits are designing to allow biological and technical components to be reused indefinitely.

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart’s influential 2002 book Cradle to Cradle proposed a new and better way to make the stuff of our daily lives by mimicking the way systems work in nature. In nature, there is no waste, as nutrients are endlessly recycled. Products, McDonough argues, should be designed to enable the recapture of all technical and biological nutrients. Rather than destroy trees to make paper, the pages of Cradle to Cradle were made of an endlessly reusable polymer. McDonough’s urban designs work to incorporate the needs of both human and non-human inhabitants in a waste-free system.

Towards a Circular Economy

Steel in the circular economy
In December 2015, while world leaders convened in Paris to discuss climate goals at COP21, the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) met in Brussels to adopt “an ambitious new Circular Economy Package to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy.” The Commission explains,

“To ensure sustainable growth for the EU we have to use our resources in smarter, more sustainable ways. It is clear that the linear model of economic growth we relied on in the past is no longer suited for the needs of today’s modern societies in a globalized world. We cannot build our future on a ‘take-make-dispose’ model. Many natural resources are finite [and] we must find an environmentally and economically sustainable way of using them. … In a circular economy the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible; waste and resource use are minimized, and resources are kept within the economy when a product has reached the end of its life, to be used again and again to create further value. “

In the U.S., the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition aims to develop its own circular economy, the first such effort in North America. The Coalition currently comprises 28 businesses and organizations, including several energy companies and nonprofits as well as large corporations like General Mills, Target, Best Buy, and 3M, whose headquarters are all based in Minnesota. Mike Harley, the executive director of The Environmental Initiative, which facilitates the Coalition’s efforts, reports that the idea of creating a collective developed because “these companies had been working to reduce their own footprints and began to bump up against problems that are systemic. They realized that no one company has power to change the system on its own, but together had the possibility to move the needle.”

Over the last year, leadership from these organizations has collaborated to create a plan that will drastically shrink their global footprints by working together to minimize the environmental impact of their operations. In their initial phase, they will focus on switching to 100% renewable energy, returning organic waste to agricultural use, and “greening the grey” by reusing water. Harley believes the group will serve as “a lab for innovative ways to drive solutions” to the planetary problems caused by traditional manufacturing. We have a long way to go, but that companies are beginning to envision a new and better way to do business is heartening.

Wouldn’t you like to live in a world where toxic byproducts of manufacturing didn’t pollute our air, water, and soil? You can play a role in making a cleaner, greener world reality by supporting this new vision of our economy.

Modeling a Circular Economy

Numerous initiatives have emerged in recent years to demonstrate how local economies can thrive even as they repair and improve damaged ecosystems. The Oberlin Project, for example, seeks to revitalize the local economy while shifting to renewable energy and re-localizing the city’s food system. Oberlin is one of 19 cities worldwide pioneering “climate-positive” urban development.

Individual actions can seem small when we’re talking about something as vast and complex as global economies. But within our own communities we can help make game-changing projects like these happen. More than 450 Transition Towns worldwide are working to make their communities self-reliant and sustainable. Each of these initiatives was started by small groups of individuals passionate about envisioning a more vibrant and sustainable future. If you don’t already live in a Transition Town, you can begin conversations in your community to become one.

What we can do as individuals

We can each make our household economies as circular as possible using these strategies:
I am not trash
– Support businesses and organizations in the community that seek to have a positive environmental impact or work to eliminate waste. Patronize businesses working to reduce their environmental impacts, and spread the word among your friends. Show up at city council meetings to support initiatives that encourage such businesses in your community. Write or call your state representatives asking them to do likewise.

– Consider your purchases carefully to minimize waste. Buy less, and when you do buy, look for companies embracing principles of the circular economy like B Corporations and Cradle to Cradle certification.

– Share. The sharing economy will reduce the overall amount of materials used in our daily lives. Try car sharing or tool sharing. As you embrace the concept of sharing you’ll see more opportunities in the commerce of your daily life.

Close your household loop.
Some ways you can turn waste into resources:

Every day the need to drastically alter ‘business as usual’ becomes more urgent. Your example speaks to family, neighbors and friends. Fresh ideas emerge from the efforts and intentions of individuals in communities across the country. How will you play a role in ushering in a new, greener economy?

Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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