The Circular Economy

A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit multiple stakeholders – businesses, society, and our very environment. Restorative and regenerative by design, a circular economy builds and rebuilds our overall system health.

If we are all not already aware of the climate crisis that we are facing, global emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 in order to keep Earth from becoming a hot blazing mess. Doesn’t sound very nice and comfortable for us, does it? To accomplish this environmental change at the scale and pace we need, fundamental changes need to be made to the way our economy functions.

In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model that we are aware of globally, the circular economy is regenerative by nature, which aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources. In order for this model to disrupt our existing status quo, there is a need for cooperation at all scales - big and small businesses, organisations and individuals, globally and locally. Guided by three primary principles, here’s how the circular economy will enable a worldwide shift.

Design out waste and pollution

Keep products and materials in use

Regenerate natural systems

1. Design Out Waste and Pollution

What if waste and pollution were never created in the first place? The design model that circularity adopts eliminates the negative impacts that economic activities potentially have on human health and natural systems. This includes the release of greenhouse gases, all types of pollution, and traffic congestion. One of the ways to achieve minimal waste and pollution is through careful material choice. Not all materials are fit for a circular economy. Some of them contain harmful chemicals, that may be hazardous to humans or the environment. By opting for materials that are safe and circular, not only do they appeal to users, but they fit within the circular economy as well.

2. Keep Products And Materials In Use

What if we could build an economy that uses things rather than uses them up? Under the linear model, we take raw natural resources and make products from them. Often times after a relatively short period of time, we discard these items once we are done utilising them and no longer see the value in them. Sometimes, these products fall apart and break easily before their expected date. Not only are they difficult to repair time, their repair cost may even exceed their retail pricing. What now? Toss them away and purchase a new one! That’s brand new resources going right straight into the trash.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

Admittedly, this is the problem that I often face when I purchase clothing items from fast fashion brands. At the end of the day, we are getting what we paid for.

Low price, low quality.

Well, the circular economy makes no room for these problems. Resources are being handled in a more responsible manner, where they are re-used and thus extending their lifespan. In a circular economy, products are built to last and be in use for an extended period of time. They are durable and can be upgraded and repaired easily. Parts of a product can be easily replaced. For example, our mobile phones’ battery lifespan. Rather than discarding the whole phone and purchasing a new one, why not change out the worn-out battery? It is as good as new. The ultimate goal is to extend products’ lifetime and recirculate all materials without producing any waste. While the recycling of products may be a viable option, it is less resource-efficient than product reuse.

Take for example.

A plastic bag made out of recycled materials.

How much more resources input to produced this plastic bag?

Therefore, extending product lifetime is the best option to minimising environmental impact. Once old products have reached the end of their usable life, they turn into valuable resources used to manufacture new products. Old products are kept in use and the need to extract new resources is therefore minimised in the circular economy. At the end of the day, circular systems make effective use of materials by encouraging and enabling many different uses for them within their lifespan.

3. Regenerate Natural Systems

What if we could not only protect but actively improve the environment? The most transformative principle is in its emphasis on providing feedback loops that aims to do good for the environment. In nature, there is no concept of waste - everything works in a cyclical manner. All the natural cycles that we know of – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water etc. – work in closed loops and nothing is ever lost. Mimicking nature’s best cycles, the circular economy aims to protect and improve our environment. In order to do so, the use of fossil fuels and non-renewable energy is avoided. Instead, alternatives such as renewable energy are sourced for. By preserving and enhancing renewable resources, returns valuable nutrients to the soil to support regeneration and actively improve the environment.

Why now?

Ever since the Industrial Revolution which transformed our life greatly in 1760’s, our economy has always been favouring and adopting the linear model of production and consumption. While this has worked for ages and brought tremendous economic value, is this the most efficient and sustainable way going forward?

We doubt so.

In fact, this lock-in is weakening under the pressure of several powerful disruptive trends. As a progressive nation, we ought to adapt and take advantage of this favourable alignment of economic, technological, and social factors in order to accelerate the smooth transition into a circular economy. Having equipped ourselves with the necessary tools, Singapore is able to take on the role of a role model for our neighbours. Rather than talking circularity, why not go circularity? Instead of ‘take, make and waste’, how about ‘reuse, repurpose and reborn’ for use again? Circularity no longer just exists on paper and has long moved beyond the proof of concept. The circular economy holds key to our future and it is not just hypothetical The challenge that we face right now is for us to (yes, you and I), within our lifetime, mainstream the circular economy, and bring it to scale.

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