The Traditional (and Flawed) Concept of the Circular Economy

The most common 'solutions' for waste today are linear in nature, treating waste materials as useless outputs to burn in an incinerator or be buried in a landfill where none of the material value of the waste can be captured. In response to this present linear product economy, some believe that the traditional concept of the circular economy is the solution: a truly closed loop, where previously "useless" waste outputs are continuously reintegrated into the production cycle in perpetuity. While visionary, even ideal, this concept is flawed because, quite simply, it is not realistic.

The first limitation to this concept is economic in nature. The economics of waste already prevent our most common waste streams from being captured and recycled, let alone reintegrated into a circular production cycle. Our current recycling infrastructure typically only captures commodities like aluminum, paper, glass and certain plastics because the cost of collection and processing is less expensive than the resulting material resource. For almost every other waste stream on the planet (drink pouches, toothbrushes, chip bags, coffee cups, etc.), the costs of recycling outweigh the value of the recycled end product. This makes linear disposal the only viable economic option.

On the other hand, the circular economy is a regenerative system that realizes the value in previously useless outputs, which can then become inputs to the production cycle. Viewed as a sort of ideal solution to the linear model, the traditional concept of this circular system, in which nothing is discarded because all waste streams are returned to the manufacturing process, would require massive changes to our global infrastructure, from production to consumption. Manufacturers and CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies would have to design products and packaging in a way that would allow their waste products to be easily captured in order to allow for re-implementation into the manufacturing process.

For example, coffee capsules are one of the most recognizable examples of a single serving convenience item. Despite coming under fire for creating an irreconcilable amount of waste, manufacturers have not yet been able to deliver a capsule that is 100% easily recyclable. Capturing waste being the first and most difficult part of the recycling process to execute, how can we expect most companies to create products that can be circulated from production to consumption and back to production again and again? At the end of the day, a fully closed loop circular economy is an idealist's dream, but an unrealistic one. The economic, logistical, and processing restrictions just don't seem possible today.

Instead of a closed circle, perhaps we should envision the circular economy as more of a spring: rather than outputs returning to the same production cycle from whence they came, these outputs join new production cycles where their value as an input to production is realized in a new and different way.

At TerraCycle, we have evaluated every type of consumer waste and have found that nothing is beyond recycling. Thanks to our many corporate partners, such as Colgate, Garnier and Brita, we have successfully recycled post-consumer product and packaging waste into new, wholly different products by deconstructing them into their component parts and giving the waste materials a second life.

Sanford Pens, for example, known for its Sharpie and Papermate stationery brands, reintegrates the plastic collected through TerraCycle's Writing Instrument Recycling Program back into its manufacturing process. After the collected waste is aggregated, it is recycled and manufactured into Expo Pen Ledges. By developing an entirely new product from the waste materials previously perceived as a useless output bound for the landfill, Sanford creates a more sustainable supply chain while reducing post-consumer waste.

Another manufacturer that captures post-consumer waste to integrate it back into their own manufacturing processes is Levi Strauss & Co., which recently announced a prototype for a pair of classic Levi's 511s made out of discarded cotton T-shirt waste. Though this product has yet to come to market, what Levi's is doing is facilitating a unique, circular waste solution. Companies that value the composition of their waste outputs and reintegrate these materials into their production processes offset the demand for virgin raw material and build supply chain security by knowing where their materials come from.

Creating realistic solutions that capture materials in new, innovative ways allows us to look out for the 'next best thing' to do with our waste. It is possible to move away from the abstract, idealistic concepts viewed as the antidote to the current linear product economy and create genuine, effective circular waste solutions that are far more sustainable; these systems look more like a spring, rather than a full circle.