Linear Economy vs Circular Economy: What are They + Which is Better?

Linear Economy vs Circular Economy: What are They + Which is Better?

You might have noticed in a few of my articles I use the term “circular economy”. Or, I’ll refer to the linear economy. But what exactly does that mean? And how does it pertain to zero waste or sustainability? Well, it actually has a lot to do with it. The economy is key to fighting climate change because it directly correlates to our consumption of resources. If we’re overconsuming our resources, we’re damaging the planet + essentially ourselves. Also, how we consume our products, and their end of life, is very important. The linear and circular economy dictates these things. So lets analyze the linear economy vs circular economy: What are they + which is better?

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Linear Economy vs Circular Economy: What are They + Which is Better?

What is linear economy?

First off, lets discuss what is linear economy and how it affects the environment (and ultimately us!). The linear economy is currently what’s in place today.

It’s the traditional model where raw materials are collected (aka extracted from the ground), transformed into products for consumers, then discarded as waste. We consume land, materials, energy and water to produce the goods we consume every day.

An example of a linear economy

The companies who make these products aren’t obliged or responsible to think of the ecological footprint of their products or their end-of-life.

This model prioritizes profit over sustainability and products are made to literally be thrown away.

Single-use coffee cups are perfect examples: You buy it, drink it, then discard it. Coffee cups cannot be recycled because they have plastic lining. But, this also keeps the cup waterproof.

Single use coffee cup manufactures are making a fortune from cafes who buy them in bulk. Thing is, this business model may be profitable short term, but it isn’t long term. Because our resources are finite – not infinite. And to create something just to waste it means eventually, there will be a shortage of the materials used to make those coffee cups.

What is circular economy?

A circular economy mimics nature, in the sense that everything gets recycled in some form, some way. Nature wastes nothing, and everything is reused.

In a circular economy, production leaves less of a footprint because everything gets reduced, reused and recycled.

An example of a circular economy design in products would be Plaine Products – they sell sustainable shampoo + conditioner in aluminum containers that you can ship back to them when empty to be reused. There’s absolutely no waste, and there’s a subscription service that ensures you’re not overconsuming.

This is only one example of a circular economy.

An example of a circular economy

Essentially, in a circular economy:

  • Materials matter. Virgin materials are out, recycled or upcycled materials are in. Reclaimed wood, or materials from renewable resources (like bamboo) also make the cut. Materials made from industry waste can also be innovative, like fruit waste to make leather.
  • End of life is considered + taken into account upon design of a product. So will it be fully recyclable, reusable, or compostable? It has to meet one of those criteria if it’s to be considered “circular”.
  • Items can be repaired. Does the company making the item offer repair components or how-tos? For example, Sabai, a sustainable couch and furniture brand, offers replacement parts for all aspects of their couch. This means you don’t have to toss the whole couch if it gets stained or torn. This prolongs its life.
  • Take-back programs are available. When you’re done with your item, you can send it back for reuse, similar to how Plaine Products operates. Teva, a popular recycled shoe brand, also offers a take-back program for their shoes making it closed loop (which is the goal!).

To see the circular economy in action, I really advise watching the documentary Together We Grow on the Waterbear Network. It’s completely free to watch any of the educational docs on this streaming service. You just need to create an account.

What I love about this particular documentary is that it shows how people can come together and bring a circular economy into their own neighborhood. It proves that not just businesses can create a more circular system!

All things like learning to repair and mend our items, reuse what we have, cook things from scratch, garden, and create upcycle projects contribute to a more circular economy.

This is just one example of what a circular economy could look like when applied to a product’s design.

Why is circular economy better than linear economy?

By far, a circular economy is better because it reduces waste, minimizes virgin resource use, is less energy intensive, and cuts down on carbon emissions. It also supports a more sustainable lifestyle, and would help us create a less wasteful world.

One of the reasons going zero waste is so hard is because we live in a linear economy. It’s almost impossible to completely avoid waste because our system isn’t designed to. This puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on the consumer, when honestly, WAY more pressure should be on the companies + businesses making the products.

We should be pushing businesses to think about their packaging, and their should be policies in place that support this. For example, did you hear in California they passed a recycling law that requires producers to foot the bill for recycling? The landmark legislation also restricts single-use plastics, which is pretty huge.

These are the kind of policies we should be putting in place to create a more circular economy. Also, supporting places that encourage reusing, like libraries, repair stores, community gardens and maker spaces.

Under a circular economy, businesses can still make a profit. But there will be a triple bottom line: People, Planet + THEN profit.

So, did this analysis of linear economy vs circular economy clarify things? Let me know in the comments!

For more tips on creating a sustainable future, check out the 5 R’s of zero waste or learn how o build a zero waste community in your neighborhood.

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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