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Circular Economy: How to Sustainably Redesign Resource Use

Oct 08, 2020

Editor’s Note: Population Media Center is pleased to re-publish the following essay, which is written by Peggy Gilges and originally published by Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP). This is the third of three essays published by ASAP that PMC re-published from September 24 to October 8, 2020. Population Media Center has been interested in ASAP’s work for well over a decade, and is grateful for these important essays. ASAP was formed by residents of the Albemarle-Charlottesville community, and their goal is to gradually slow and ultimately stop growth before it consumes the local environment and further erodes their quality of life. They implement these goals through education, research, policy development, and advocacy.

The “Circular Economy” is a term that has come into more common usage as we consider solutions to the multiple and related predicaments we face in the 21st Century. These problems include overconsumption of resources/ecological overshoot, high generation of waste and pollution, and excessive production of greenhouse gases, driving ocean acidification and rapid global climate change. Sustainability is defined as meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Our present day use of resources is unsustainable, but we have the power to rethink and reshape our system of materials use from beginning to end. The goals of the circular economy are to alleviate pressure on natural resources and ecosystems, reduce the inefficiency and toxicity of our waste, and rein in the climate-altering emissions released through extraction, processing, use, and disposal.

Waste not, want not to 4.51 pounds/per person/day

In early 20th century America, thrift and resourcefulness were valued. Use of resources and general levels of consumption tended to be conservative. Living by the maxim “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was not only one’s patriotic duty during the World Wars, but also a point of pride. Increasingly over the course of the century and into the 21st, we have become more accustomed toand comfortable with–throwing things away, often after a very brief period of use. In fact, many things we use on a daily basis are considered “disposable” and are intended to be thrown away. Since the 1950s, as our population and consumption levels have risen, we have enthusiastically supported a “Take, Make, Waste” economy. In this linear economy, the lifecycle of a product is a straight line, progressing from the extraction of raw materials, to the production process, distribution, use by consumers, and finally, disposal. According to the EPA, Americans generated 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of this waste, the EPA estimates that approximately 35% was diverted through recycling and composting, far below the estimated 80-90% of potentially recoverable resources in the waste stream.(1)

The bulk of our waste in the U.S. goes to landfills. Another 13% is incinerated to produce energy. The problem with these disposal methods is that they put our waste habits out of sight and out of mind—they allow us to ignore hard realities about planetary limits and living sustainably. When we landfill or incinerate waste, we are dead-ending these materials, together with all of the additional embedded resources used to make them, such as water and energy. While landfills contain our waste and incinerators burn it, both contribute significantly to human and environmental harms through the new pollution they create. Landfills emit methane gas, caused by the anaerobic decomposition of organic material, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Across the world, landfills are a leading source of methane emissions (2). Methane gas is hard to contain – some landfills capture and burn it for energy, and some flare it off on site, resulting in carbon dioxide emissions. Inevitably some methane escapes into our atmosphere. Landfills also produce “leachate,” a toxic liquid. Leachate is usually drawn off and treated to reduce its toxicity, but there are many cases in which leachate has made its way out of the landfill, polluting local ground water. Incineration can reduce the volume of waste and produce energy, but not without creating hazardous emissions like dioxin and particulates, as well as carbon dioxide and toxic bottom ash (the ash goes to landfills). Thus, landfilling and incineration are far from perfect solutions to a problem that stems from our failure to think through the full lifecycle of the resources we use. The linear economy is an inefficient and polluting system of take, make, waste, over and over again.

Enter the Circular Economy Vision

“Kids today should grow up thinking that the stupidest thing in the whole world is to throw something away.”—Peter Senge (3)

Proponents of a more sustainable materials management system have proposed ways to steward resources and eliminate the negative impacts of the linear economy. UVA’s former Dean of Architecture, William McDonough, and his co-author, chemist Michael Braungart, in their seminal 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, advocated for separating materials into “biologic” materials (such as paper) and “technical” materials (such as plastics), keeping the two types separate, rather than hybridizing or combining them, as we commonly do, in order to simplify and maximize recycling and reuse. Biologic materials can be recycled and eventually be safely returned to Nature, while technical materials should be designed for effective recycling.

More recently, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been a leader in encouraging a reshaping of the economy which would provide multiple benefits and radically reduce sustainability threats. The circular economy they envision is based on three principals which can be achieved by rethinking and redesigning our materials economy (4):

How Will the Circular Economy Help Us?

We are living in a time of mass extinction and natural resource depletion, problems of our own making. Human demands are outstripping the ability of Earth to generate resources. The Global Footprint Network found that the global human population consumes 60% more renewable resources than are annually generated. (5) Americans live as if we have the resources of five Earths. (6)

Destruction of habitat, hunting, overfishing, impacts from climate change, pollution and invasive species have put an estimated one million species of plants and animals at risk. (7) However, stocks such as fisheries and forests may be renewable if given sufficient time and protection to regenerate. The circular economy strives to rebuild natural resources to sustainable levels and prevent permanent losses.

Other natural resources are non-renewable, yet we use these finite materials without systems in place to keep them from being thrown away. One example of this may be found in a recent report about the huge quantity of electronic waste generated last year. According to the UN, a record 54 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, incorporating an estimated $10 billion dollars’ worth of gold, platinum and other precious metals. (8) Even among the resources we do seek to collect for recycling, there is much room for improvement. In the U.S. today, only about 50% of aluminum beverage cans are recycled, necessitating constant mining of bauxite to produce more aluminum. (9) In a circular economy, finite resources would be carefully managed, and goods would be designed to maximize their potential for reuse and recycling in order to eliminate avoidable waste.

To design out waste and pollution, we need to reconsider the materials we use from extraction to end of life. Plastics are a topical example of our need to adopt a circular economy with this goal. While plastics make up only about 13% of the U.S. waste stream by weight, because plastics are lightweight, this percentage somewhat obscures the massive volume of plastics that are landfilled, incinerated and littered into our environment. Conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels, and as use of fossil fuels for transportation and energy declines, the fossil fuel industry is setting its sights on increasing production of plastics. The International Energy Agency has reported that consumption of oil for plastics by mid-century will outpace that of cars. (10) Yet while plastic products, clothing and packaging are favored by manufacturers as inexpensive, there are a host of reasons why we should not use them to the extent that we do today. The public is becoming aware of the degree of plastic pollution both in the oceans and in their bodies, and about the complete mismatch between our ability to recycle plastic and the vast scale of environmental pollution caused by their overuse. (11) Although we hear much about recycling plastics, and recycling is still far better than disposal, conventional plastics are “open loop;” they cannot be recycled infinite times in a closed loop like glass or aluminum. A primary goal of the circular economy is to stop making things that are meant to be thrown away or cannot be reused or recycled in a closed loop, and to restrict use of materials that are toxic and/or polluting.

A hallmark of the 21st Century lifestyle is our consumption. The technology of electronics such as cell phones and computers changes rapidly, necessitating new purchases, even if our older products aren’t broken. Often, broken products can’t be fixed because parts are unavailable, repair businesses don’t exist, or perhaps what you have is not designed to be reparable, or replacing it would be cheaper than repairing it. These obstacles lead us to make a decision to throw something away, even when we would rather not. In the circular economy, products would be designed to increase their longevity. They would be able to be repaired or updated, keeping products in use for as long as possible. Another way to keep resources at work is to adopt Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation. This would require manufacturers to take back their products at the end of their useful life, rather than leave it to consumers to get rid of them. EPR policies are in place in a few states already for difficult-to-recycle things such as mattresses. These programs are set up so that consumers pay part of the costs. For example, when you purchase a new mattress in California, you are required to pay a fee (in California it’s $10.50 per unit) which goes toward disassembling the mattress so that its component parts may be recycled by a consortium of mattress manufacturers. (12) In a circular economy, EPR regulations will be much more prevalent.

Waste and pollution are preventable. In a circular economy we will drive down waste. Rather than heaping our “trash” into landfills or burning it to ash, we can increase the productive use of materials and extend the life span of products. In so doing, we will reduce the quantity of virgin resources taken every year from our planet, restoring balance between what humanity needs and what the Earth can produce. It is imperative that we do this in the coming decades to preserve the biodiversity and habitability of our planet. We must help to rebuild the natural resources that future generations will need. In rethinking the whole system of materials, design, production and consumption, we can draw down levels of pollution in our air, water, and soils. In parting with the take, make, waste linear economy, and embracing a circular economy, we will prevent the staggering systemic inefficiency that pumps more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Being able to live sustainably on our one Earth is the way to improve human and environmental health, fortify our resources, improve our general well-being this century, and provide for a secure future.


  1. EPA website. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#NationalPicture
  2. Drawdown, https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/landfill-methane-capture
  3. Forbes Magazine, https://www.fastcompany.com/1693703/starbucks-cup-dilemma
  4. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy
  5. The Global Footprint Network, https://www.footprintnetwork.org/2020/06/05/press-release-june-2020-earth-overshoot-day/
  6. The Global Footprint Network, http://data.footprintnetwork.org/?__hstc=207509324.b4cf9d099740e46b629d764f83ca524b.1591393591334.1591393591334.1591393591334.1&__hssc=207509324.1.1591393591334&__hsfp=563613201&_ga=2.40551211.800596685.1595865547-853347287.1595865547#/compareCountries?type=earth&cn=all&yr=2016
  7. National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/mass-extinction/#close
  8. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/02/10bn-precious-metals-dumped-each-year-electronic-waste-un-toxic-e-waste-polluting
  1. The Aluminum Association, https://www.aluminum.org/aluminum-can-advantage
  2. Grist, https://grist.org/climate/fossil-fuel-companies-are-counting-on-plastics-to-save-them/
  3. Climate News Network, https://climatenewsnetwork.net/waste-plastic-cascade-could-triple-in-20-years/