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Why Recycling Will Be a Last Resort in a Truly Circular Economy

May 5, 2016

Why Recycling Will Be a Last Resort in a Truly Circular Economy

by Joe Iles
May 5, 2016

The circular economy represents a fundamental shift in the way resources, energy and information flow through our economy. A key characteristic of this framework is that products and components remain at their highest levels of integrity and performance. So is recycling part of the picture?

There’s some perception that a circular economy is just ‘recycling on steroids’ — recycling more stuff, and doing it a bit better. This confusion is understandable. Since the 1970s, recycling has become synonymous with ‘doing good.’ What’s more, many businesses have invested in recycling practices that seem like a natural starting point for more involved circular economy activities. However, the characteristics of a circular economy — and existing research — suggest that returning a product to the material level would be ‘the loop of last resort,’ with a more fundamental shift required to decouple growth from finite resources and move to a circular development path.

Economic analysis conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co. has demonstrated how, in a circular economy, greater value can be obtained by operating in the ‘inner loops’ of a technical cycle. Activities such as sharing, service, maintenance, refurbishment and remanufacturing preserve the integrity of a product. We often hear about how a company has recovered a product and then processed the materials so they can be used as a resource. But think about it — by returning a product to its constituent materials you lose all the energy, labour and expense that went into creating it in the first place. In some cases, the recycling process may even be more costly than extracting virgin resources. This can severely undermine recycling efforts — in the current context of depressed commodity prices, for example.

Read more at Sustainable Brands.

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