The concept of a circular economy has been around since the 1970s, gained visiblity in 2009 with the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and has been a corporate buzz concept since at least 2017. The concept is intuitive: minimize waste and maximize material usage in a semi-closed loop circuit that leaves us with a sustainable business model and environmental gains through the protection of virgin materials and reduction of landfill.
However, the application of the theory of circular economy to the actual economy have been relatively underwhelming. In early 2020 at the WEF, Dutch thinktank Circle Economy reported that only 8.65% of the 100.6 billion tons of raw natural materials which entered the global economy were reused in 2019. In their analysis, the organization cites a lack of government focus on recycling initiatives in favor of more traditional deforestation and energy conservation efforts but also lack of consumer buy-in for reuse.
In working with large corporations attempting to activate circular economy principles, I have experienced a compounding of trivial of factors that makes reuse and recycling of direct to consumer (D2C) products nearly impossible. Complications include the added financial and environmental costs of returning shipping containers to their point of origin, the multi-layer nature of certain consumer packaging, and the confounding and confusing nature of municipal recycling requirements. Add to that the buyer perspective – where recycled plastics look less pristine and new materials are readily accessible via cheap platforms – and it seems likely that the key node in the circle (the consumer) is also the key breakdown point for circularity.
Given the confluence of these attitudes, consumer realities and engineering challenges, we ask if the circular economy is really possible in a majority D2C world. Is it worth considering new ways of thinking about waste reduction that focus less on consumer choice and more on government requirements?
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