Earth & Conservation

Can A Circular Economy Make Trash Obsolete?

People produce trillions of pounds of garbage, but recycling this waste can be lucrative. Can a circular economy turn trash into treasure?

Considering that Earth is an impossibly precious piece of cosmic real estate, we really are trashing it in a hurry. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, human will produce around 5 trillion tons of garbage each year -- roughly 1/36 of the entire biomass of the planet. That's not a sustainable model.

In an effort to fix things before its too late, a growing number of officials are promoting the concept of the circular economy. Inspired by nature, circular economies are designed to, ideally, produce no waste or pollution whatsoever. Organic compounds are returned to the biosphere while manufactured items are repurposed and reused at maximum efficiency.

It sounds like a tall order, but as Jules Suzdaltsev explains in this Seeker Daily report, it's already working in some places. That's because the circular economy isn't just a remedy for future trash issues, it's a real financial opportunity.

The economic model itself was introduced by British environmental economists in the 1990s. Recognizing that traditional programs did not give people enough incentive to recycle, the economists proposed engineering and designing products to produce the least amount of trash possible.

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For example, in a circular economy, smartphones would be designed from the ground up with eventual repurposing in mind. All of those expensive and durable components could be easily removed and shuttled back into secondary markets, where they can return to the manufacturing cycle.

In 2015, the European Union adopted a circular economy package, setting up regulations on waste and funding implementation efforts. The idea is to close the loop and directly connect the end of a product's life-cycle to the beginning of a new product life-cycle -- just like in nature. The EU has made an initial investment of $5.5 billion in the program.

Over in China, circular economy principles are taking hold on a massive scale as entire towns base their economies on sorting through electronic waste and moving the reusable parts into new markets. In France, the automaker Renault is a leading proponent of circular economy concepts, with some its cars already made to be 90 percent recyclable.

If circular economy principles keep getting this kind of traction, we may be able to ward of those dire predictions of a trashed Earth and avoid a future like this.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

USA Today: How garbage can boost U.S. economy

Bloomberg: To a Chinese Scrap-Metal Hunter, America's Trash Is Treasure

The Guardian: China leads the waste recycling league

Huffington Post: Sweden Must Import Trash For Energy Conversion Because Its Recycling Program Is So Successful