Zero Waste: Can a Holistic Circular Economy Exist?

There was virtually no reference to the terminology “circular economy” as little as six years ago. And since the term has been adopted by the EU, some business entities and numerous sustainability professionals. A clear definition so it could be adapted for implementation isn’t available and this has left numerous groups struggling with how this concept fits into it holistic approach for day-to-day business.

So how does business conceptualize something that has numerous elements into something practical, something they can execute? How do we communicate the concept of a circular economy (CE) when most companies and governments believe the goal of sustainability is still linear? Can a holistic circular economy even exist? How does a zero waste goal play a role?

What is CE?

According to WRAP UK: “A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.” A circular economy is regenerative with the idea that what we may have previously viewed as an end-of-life-cycle issue should actually be the beginning-of-creative-innovation. CE has challenged every person who feels as though there has to be a better way to create it out of the building blocks we currently have. It will not be building a better mousetrap, it will instead be rearranging the parts to catch more mice.

As a scientific discussion, it is relatively new. We know where we want to take the concept. It is safe to agree though that CE is a sustainable conclusion to the question of social ethics, environmental quality and economic prosperity.

Defining CE

In a study titled “Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions“, the authors Julian Kirchherr, Denise Reike and Marko Hekkert understood the need to give science a starting point that was widely accepted. They realized the study of CE offers numerous fragmented opinions and this paper sought to codify the definitions for researchers.

They wrote: “Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.759) as well as Schut et al. (2015, p.15) claim that the most prominent CE definition has been provided by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012, p.7) which reads: “[CE] an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models.” This definition is indeed the most employed definition in our set of definitions.

What the authors did realized was one curious omission: In all of the published references they cite, future generations are barely mentioned.

Zero Waste to CE Circularity

In a zero waste world, the idea of finding ways to recycle, repurpose and/or reuse is front and center to the discussion. And in truth, there are innumerable opportunities at every business level to achieve a better execution of what is currently being sent to landfills. At this end of the process, innovation often outpaces the financial reasons for a company to engage. I know all too well the challenges that take place internally in a corporation where leadership often entertains two voices on the subject: We can’t afford to do it and We can’t afford not to do it. The economic prosperity this process will generate is not easily defined in part because the future initiatives often depend on the numbers achieved in the past, often the most recent past. And if the consensus is correct, the benefit for the future generation is not a viable argument why new process should be adopted.

However, business is the enabler as are the customers who do business with those entities. Businesses can affect change and in the process gain customers who may be thinking about the very thing that science has not addressed: Their kids and beyond.

So can a Holistic Circular Economy Exist?

Yes it can and more importantly, it has to exist. Businesses publish sustainability reports professing their commitment to the environment and yet, these are the very documents that could nudge CE closer to reality – but do not. They are noble with achievable goals, often with little or no cost to the company  – and with a great deal of leeway built in.

Take plastics for example. If a major food retailer simply insisted that every plastic bag, container and wrap that enters their establishment contain at least twenty percent recyclable material or post consumer resins (PCR), plastics manufacturers, often several layers removed from that sort of mandate would act and invest in the processes now. In this case, it is all about leverage. (More on how that would actually work in real life to follow in future posts.)

CE is Zero Waste with More Partners.

Logistical, manufacturing, retailers, waste managers and consumers all need to come together to understand that those concepts, social ethics, environmental quality and economic prosperity are just the beginning. Can we discuss how your company gets to its goals profitably?


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