Using circular principles to re-design your life: use products better, create less waste and help the environment.

Photos: Nick Fewings on Unsplash; Joseph Redfield Nino on Pixabay; Graphics: Author

The circular economy allows us to meet the challenges of a growing population and a planet with limited resources. Our world has a fixed amount of things such as fertile farmland, drinking water, and mined and extracted materials. Some of these resources are close to depleted already.

However, I’m a big believer of the idea that the circular economy also has a lot to offer individuals: you, me and everyone else.

The circular economy is primarily focussed on systemic change: tackling problems of overuse and waste at the source, instead of at the end of life. The agents for these changes are: governments (to set the rules and frameworks), industry (to implement the changes), and academia (to test new ideas and evaluate progress).

However, I’m a big believer of the idea that the circular economy also has a lot to offer individuals: you, me and everyone else. Circularity can help guide us in the things we buy, how we use them, and how we dispose of them.

What is the Circular Economy?

First, a definition. The Circular Economy is most commonly defined with three principles:

  • Keep products and materials in use;
  • Design out waste and pollution; and
  • Regenerate natural systems.

In the following sections, for each of the circular principles, I’ll explain why they are important to each of us and how we can use them to live more sustainably and help our planet.

Where the circular economy is about re-designing systems and businesses, think about this approach as re-designing our lives to use things better, create less waste, and help the environment.

Keep Products and Materials in Use

What’s it Mean?

One of the key ways we can reform our throwaway society is to use things for as long as possible. For manufacturers, that means using more durable materials, designing easily repairable items, and designing components so they can be reused or repurposed.

How can WE apply it?

We can use this principle to inform our purchasing decisions: from clothing to kitchenware, from electronics to gardening equipment.

Prince Charles’ mantra is buy once, buy well, and it’s something we could all do to remember. We used to buy stuff that lasted, and look after it, but we’ve lost sight of that in recent times. We used to value our possessions.

We should be willing, where we can afford it, to pay more for something that is well made and that will last. We must ask ourselves if an item can be repaired if it breaks or if the components degrade.

Look at the companies we buy from. Do they operate from circular principles? It is not always easy to find out, but we can look for their policies on repair and refurbishment. Ask what their position is and also how they are ensuring their products last a long time.

Are there alternatives to our regular purchases that make more responsible use of resources? Our local zero waste shop can be a great place to start for this and to help us avoid single-use items.

Make use of local community services. Two that are particularly relevant to the circular economy are libraries of things and repair shops. A library of things is a place where we can borrow household or garden appliances. Staff at the libraries can often provide knowledgeable instruction and advice.

Repair shops are increasingly common; they give us a way to extend our product lives. They also can serve as valuable community hubs, giving vulnerable or lonely people a place to meet, exchange skills and learn.

Key questions to ask:

Some of the key questions to ask ourselves when looking to apply this principle are:

  • Will this material or product last?
  • Can this product be repaired?
  • Can I borrow or rent this item instead of buying it?
  • Does this company have a circular philosophy?

Design Out Waste and Pollution

What’s it mean?

Everything we throw away has to be replaced. The mining or farming of new materials and subsequent fabrication into products is energy-intensive.

Recycling isn’t much better. It’s difficult to create material of “as new” quality from old materials, as well as being energy-intensive. Though it’s become the easy way for companies to demonstrate their environmental credentials, it’s better to reduce or avoid recycling altogether.

In industrial terms, we want to minimise the energy we use, and so opt for lower-energy processes such as reuse, refurbishment and remanufacture. We also want to minimise the harmful byproducts and emissions associated with extraction and manufacture.

How can WE apply it?

When we dispose of something, we must try to save that item from the waste bin or the recycling. The best thing we can do is not create the waste in the first place. The key thing to remember is that, because of the energy requirements, recycling should always be the last resort.

We should strive for multiple-use. It’s important to note that it isn’t only plastic items that can be single-use. Everything that goes in one of those bins is single-use, whether it is ultimately recycled, land-filled, or incinerated. Aluminium foil, cardboard, glass, etc. — we need to manage it all.

Consider the mantra: Everything saved from the bin is a win.

Whilst on the topic of single-use: we should avoid fast fashion. Never buy something just for one wear. Buy adaptable and versatile clothing that will last. Buy clothing made from natural materials rather than synthetic ones. Synthetic materials break down and shed plastic fibres that end up in our environment.

We must think about reducing the pollution we create, from plastic fibres, yes, but also the emissions associated with the products we buy: those associated with extraction and manufacture, but also, crucially, transportation. If in doubt, it’s always better to buy local, and pre-owned, refurbished or up-cycled.

Make fewer journeys by car and replace them where possible with more sustainable alternatives (public transport, walk or cycle). Fly less, if not at all.

Key questions to ask:

  • Can this item be reused or repurposed?
  • Can I avoid disposing of this item?
  • Can I get this product from a local source?
  • Will I use this more than once?

Regenerate Natural Systems

What’s it mean?

Minimising the harm done to the natural environment is not enough; we must aim to maintain and even improve it. For businesses, this means offsetting the damage they cause and using byproducts in creative ways to help restore natural environments.

How can WE apply it?

We need to stop and think before destroying anything in the natural environment. If our purpose is to maximise the good we do, then to minimise the bad we do seems like an obvious place to start. Whether a regular task or a one-off, we must ask if there’s an alternative to clearing, trimming or mowing.

If we have land, we can consider giving some of it back to nature. Let the grass grow as it will, or plant wildflowers. If we haven’t got land, we can do the same on a small scale with a window box or flower pots.

Use leftover food scraps to feed the birds or other local wildlife. This can be particularly important to make up for winter shortfalls caused by loss of habitats.

Finally, we can look to our local communities. Are there initiatives that we can support or help to improve, such as nature gardens or wildlife areas? If not, can we set one up?

Key questions to ask:

  • Does this action harm or help the environment?
  • Can I help this environment grow and thrive?
  • What does this ecosystem need from me?

Summary

I hope that this post helps us to understand the circular economy and how important it is to how we live our lives. Remember to use the questions I’ve suggested above to assess decisions about purchases and product use. Some of the most impactful:

  • Will this material or product last?
  • Will I use this more than once?
  • Does this help or harm the environment?

In the meantime, I’d love to get your thoughts on this approach and hear how you’ve been able to make it work.

Live circular.