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How can a circular economy benefit the planet?

Gero Rueter
March 12, 2024

We are consuming and throwing away more products than our planet can sustain. A circular economy could help protect the environment, but what does it actually involve?

Recyclable batteries
In a circular economy products are designed so they last and can be easily recycledImage: Ina Fassbender/dpa/picture alliance

How does a circular economy work?

The so-called linear economy currently dominates the world. Products are made from raw materials and only used for a short period before ending up as waste. New raw materials then have to be extracted and the process begins again  — at great cost to the environment. 

The circular economy breaks this cycle. Products are designed to last and be easily repaired. At the end of their life, they are recycled as far as possible so their raw materials can be reused for new products. For example, a new glass bottle can be made from the broken shards of another. This reduces waste and emissions and save money and resources. 

The circular economy principle can be applied to all production processes and made even more climate-friendly if powered by renewable energy. 

What are the benefits of recycling?

The circular economy principle is not new. For centuries, products were used for as long as possible worldwide, and little was wasted. 

Only in roughly the last 150 years have items become increasingly disposable as production processes have been industrialized.

However, the circular economy is still thriving today among many traditional communities and in sectors such as organic farming, where excrement is a natural fertilizer for growing food. 

Architects in many countries are also increasingly focussing on locally sourced and sustainable building materials, such as using wood rather than climate-damaging cement. There is also a push towards renovating buildings to prolong their use and reuse the raw building materials when they must be demolished. 

Many materials, including glass and metals, can be recycled with almost no loss of quality. Paper can be reused up to 25 times. Plastic, on the other hand, is usually less easy to recycle, as it is often mixed with other materials and contains harmful chemicals. 

Recycling can also reduce emissions. For example, in the case of metals, recycling aluminum saves around 95% of the energy required for new extraction from ore.

Recycling steel
Recovering materials like metal from the scrapheap saves energy and resourcesImage: Peter Hofstetter/Zoonar/picture alliance

What does the circular economy mean for consumers and industry? 

Building a circular economy requires supportive policies as well as the involvement of both consumers and industry.

Consumers can make an impact by separating their waste to aid the recycling process and buying products built to last and produce little waste. For example, a good quality jacket made from wool or cotton might be more expensive than one using plastic-derived materials, but you will be able to wear it for longer, and it is easier to mend. And unlike plastic waste, natural fibers can be composted without harming the environment. 

Industry can play a big role by manufacturing products in a way that conserves resources and energy — preferably without toxic chemicals that impair reuse. For example, mobile phones can be produced in such a way that batteries and other parts can be easily replaced. And if recycling is considered in the design itself, then gold, rare earth elements and other raw materials can be more easily recovered from the devices and reused.

However, making the shift to a circular economy also requires governments to create supportive legal frameworks and policies. More and more countries and companies are now promoting recycling, waste avoidance and the well-thought-out design of systems and products. This also benefits the economy and could create around six million new jobs worldwide by 2030.

This article was adapted from German by Holly Young.