Green Tau issue 35

22nd February 2022

What is a circular economy? 

It is easier to describe its opposite. A non circular economy is that takes, makes and throws away. For example, chop down a tree, make its wood into a sheet of paper and then, after a single use, throw the paper away. Another example would be taking oil out of the ground, making it into a plastic cup  and then, after a single use, throwing it away.

In a circular economy the ‘throw away’ section is discarded. Instead the product is reused or recycled or repurposed so that its value is not lost. In a circular economy the sheet of paper after its initial use, may be reused (writing on the back of it), possible repurposed (used to wrap a parcel) and then recycled. Being recycled the waste paper may become a fresh sheet of (recycled) paper. Going back into the economy that sheet of paper can be recycled 6 or so times before the fibres become too short. At that point the sheet of paper might be recycled as a lower grade material and become a paper bag, a news paper, a cardboard box etc. Ultimately this paper based waste product can be composted and its nutrients returned to the soil. 

In a circular economy the intention is not only to ensure the reuse of waste material (really it is not waste but ‘raw’ material) but also to ensure that there is no waste of energy and water.  Recycling paper uses about 70% less energy and water than making virgin paper and produces about 70% less air pollution. If the paper mill has solar panels, say, it operate with zero loss of energy. If it can clean, reuse and/ or  return its water to the water system, it can operate without loss to the water system.

A circular economy seeks to regenerate natural resources. In the case of paper this would be planting and maintaining woodland to ensure supplies of wood for future generations who wish to make and use paper. Not all resources can be regenerated. Once fossil oil has been extracted from the earth, more cannot be generated. Oil was created 300 million years ago when climatic conditions were particularly suitable for its formation. The formation itself took place over 200 million years during which time climatic conditions were again suitable. Oil is finite resource. 

Is the rate at which we using the earth’s resources sustainable? Bluntly, no! If we compare the amount of resources we use each year against the rate at which those resources can be replaced, then we have not been living within our means since 1970. Each year the Global Footprint Network calculates the resources we use against the capacity of the earth to regenerate its resources and pin points that day in which the two coincide. In 1970 that date was 31st December. Since then this date – Earth Overshoot Day – has rapidly receded global consumption has exceeded the rate of regeneration. In 2021, it fell on July 29. Our current lifestyle is unsustainable. Moving to a circular economy is one way of addressing this problem. 

The development of a circular economy, both globally and locally, is happening. We see it in recycling schemes where plastic bottles are collected, processed and remade into new bottles. We see it with clothing manufacturers where clothes no longer required by the user are returned and either re sold or recycled to create new cloth. There are schemes which reuse and repurpose old furniture. There are even companies that reuse and repurpose unwanted kitchen units. Some projects are small, others large but they are all a step in the right direction. As consumers we need to step up and activity choose to be part of the circular economy.

Further reading: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/06/what-circular-economy

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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