As we consider a wide array of global economic and environmental challenges, there is increasing talk about a concept called the circular economy.

These discussions have been migrating from the domain of think tanks and environmental science to businesses, boardrooms, the halls of government, and even the homes of citizens concerned about the future of the economy and our natural environment.

We should not be surprised. The circular economy is a compelling idea, one which can ensure greater prosperity and business success, while contributing to a sustainable future.

Rethinking the concept of waste

The circular economy represents a dramatic and exciting re-evaluation in how we source, manufacture, and dispose of material goods. What we take from the earth, how we make the goods we consume, and what we ultimately do with the resulting waste gets completely reimagined.

When a circular flow of materials is achieved, there is no waste to spew out the back end. Nothing gets dumped in the ground, shunted into the water supply, or emitted into the atmosphere. Waste gets designed out of the system. I call it “an economy with no tailpipe.” It has a significant and positive impact on our efforts to address the challenges of climate change.  

For consumer packaged goods, this so-called “tailpipe” is the landfill — the last stop for any unrecycled packaging. But now there is much work being done here in Canada and abroad to bring the circular economy to life, eliminating the tailpipe for the waste we generate every day.

In fact, much of this waste has inherent value — a value that is often greater than the original product itself — and provides manufacturers with the exact materials needed to create additional goods or packaging. Moreover, the reduction in demand for virgin materials from the earth contributes to the long-term viability of humanity.

So, what if the infrastructures were in place to efficiently and economically retrieve this so-called waste? What if we instilled appropriate motivations to shift consumer behaviour toward adopting responsible consumption? We would then achieve a circular economy, turning what we once sent to landfill into a feedstock for productive, regenerative use.

The future is circular: how will you take part?

The concept of the circular economy is already taking on steam. It is now embodied in directives for the management of packaging and printed paper across the European Union. Its virtues are being sung by our Prime Minister and elected leaders around the world. It is even a centrepiece of legislation governing how packaging and printed paper are managed in several Canadian provinces.

This new thinking recognizes the fragility of our ecosystem and our planet’s finite resources, and that our current approach to production and consumption is not sustainable. It makes neither economic nor environmental sense.

Forward-thinking businesses are also incorporating circular-economy thinking into their product design. It allows manufacturers to extract the maximum value from their raw materials, becoming more efficient by keeping these limited resources in a constant productive loop. Companies like Interface, Unilever, Loblaws, Ikea, and many others are looking across their entire supply chain to adopt a circular approach, allowing them to reduce their reliance on virgin materials while also saving money.

The future as I see it is circular. It will take all of us to get there. And the greatest benefits will go to early adopters, both in industry and in government. Those who lead will have a greater say in defining the terms that others will play by. Ultimately, businesses will design products differently and consumers will use, reuse, repair, and recycle products differently. 

It’s an exciting future to which we can all contribute.  Let’s get started.