What Is the Circular Economy?

How to Participate with Your Kids

According to Fast Company, 62% of American companies plan to move towards circular business strategies in 2019 and 16% indicate that they are already using circular economy strategies. This includes many of the world’s largest consumer brands such as Unilever, P&G, and PepsiCo. But while many of you have likely heard of the ‘Circular Economy’ as a growing trend, you may be left wondering more specifically what it is, why you should care, and how to participate.

Within the traditional economy, transactions tend to be linear. New raw materials are extracted, turned into a product, used by consumers, and then thrown into landfills.

As the economy grows, the resulting increase in goods demanded requires an increase in material extraction and ends with an increase of waste to landfill. In 2018, globally we consumed approximately 1.7 times what the ecosystem could regenerate in a year while in the US we consumed at around 5x the replenishment rate. And, while these types of estimates do vary, the general consensus is that the current consumption patterns are unsustainable and will deeply impact the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To combat this, businesses, consumers, and governments are advocating the transition to a circular economy that is, “restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

In other words, the circular economy aims to reduce the input of virgin raw materials, reduce the amount of waste to landfill, and maximize the value and use of products and materials in circulation. In this case, as the economy grows, raw material inputs and waste outputs can remain low while product circulation and usage increases.

This circulation can be accomplished through various methods, including:

  • Reuse: sharing items across users.
  • Repairing: bringing broken items back to a usable state by fixing specific flaws.
  • Remanufacturing: disassembling a product down to its main core, replacing or repairing components, reassembling, testing to new-product specifications, and offering for resale.
  • Recycling: reducing a product to raw materials to be used in production of a new product.
  • Reducing: adopting production efficiencies to reduce material inputs and waste outputs.
  • Rethinking: considering alternative ownership philosophies.

While the environmental advantages of the circular economy are perhaps the most apparent and include reduced waste, reduced energy consumption, reduced water use, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, participation in the circular economy can be beneficial for businesses as well. Circular methods reduce lead times and allow businesses to respond to consumer needs faster; reduce input costs resulting in higher margins or better prices for consumers; and allow companies to retain control of raw materials to reduce supply chain risks. Consumers in turn can benefit through lower prices in many instances and through good karma in all instances.

Convinced that the circular economy is advantageous? Here are some easy ways you can participate:

(I bet many of you are doing so already! Perhaps without even realizing it.)

  • Repair items rather than disposing of them and buying anew.
  • Buy used items from second-hand stores and donate your used items when you no longer need them. ;
  • Buy American National Standards Institute (ANSI) certified remanufactured goods and electronics rather than buying new.
  • Look for items that are made from recycled materials and can be recycled again at end of life.
  • Participate in resource sharing groups such as car sharing or tool libraries.
  • Look for products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified™ or hold other 3rd party certified ecolabels.
  • Opt for reusable items versus disposable ones when possible (such as coffee cups).
  • Look for items with minimal packaging that can either be recycled, composted, or reused.
  • Consider buying in bulk and then reusing and refilling smaller containers versus buying multiple small containers and then disposing of them.;
  • Tell us how your family participates in the circular economy!
  • Have other ideas? Drop us a note and let us know!

Plus, you can help teach your kids about the circular economy as well! A great way to start the conversation is to pick a product and draw its lifecycle from raw materials thru end of life. If you get stuck, work as a team to investigate online. The diagram can be made as simplistic or as detailed as needed to fit the age of your child—the main goal is to get kids thinking about what happens to a product before it’s purchased  and what happens to it after consumers are done with it. The Ellen McArthur Foundation provides some great examples for younger kids on their “How We Make Stuff” webpage.

For example, in thinking about the lifecycle of a candy you might consider: what kind of packaging is used and what you do with the wrapper after you eat the candy? Where does the trash go after it’s picked up? What happens to the wrapper once it reaches landfill? On the front end, where did the candy come from before reaching stores? What kind of waste does the factory make? Does it generate air or water pollution? Where did the ingredients for the candy come from?

Once you have a general picture, you can think about ways to improve the process. For example, what if the candy wrapper was compostable? What if the candy came in a glass jar that could be returned, recycled, or reused? What if the candy used a more sustainable sweetener such as coconut sugar? What if the factory was solar powered?

At The Hopper, we strive to use recycled materials and repurposed goods for our events and programming whenever we can. The concept of the Circular Economy reminds to investigate our daily family lives in relation to how we affect our environment and what we can do to minimize our impact.

Want to learn more? Check out the following resources:


Christina Dimas

Christina Dimas

Christina is a product manager and consumer insights analyst specializing in the circular economy and design for sustainability.

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