Have you ever bought a low-priced article of clothing after seeing it on social media, only to wear it a few times and abandon it to the depths of your closet? Or upgraded your perfectly good cellphone to a newer model just because your mobile carrier made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
Welcome to the linear economy, where materials are extracted from the earth, turned into commodity goods and then tossed.
What’s the difference between a linear and a circular economy?
A linear economy focuses on profitability and disposability, with very little thought going into environmental consequences or what happens to products once they’ve been used and thrown away.
A circular economy, meanwhile, focuses on sustainability. It aims to eliminate waste and pollution by reusing, repurposing, repairing and remanufacturing materials and products for as long as possible.
The problem with linear economies
A linear economy can look like an electronics company that intentionally designs a product that will break within a few years and is virtually impossible to repair, leaving the consumer no choice but to go out and buy a new one. It can also look like a fashion brand that employs garment workers to make cheap, abundant clothes out of synthetic fibres that can’t hold up to more than a few washes.
Linear economies equal big emissions.
The linear economy doesn’t work for our planet, and it doesn’t work for us. Take, for example, fashion manufacturers that aim to produce a high volume of clothing at the lowest possible cost. Their ultra-fast production cycles, which serve fleeting fashion trends, account for an estimated 10 percent of the planet’s annual carbon emissions output and 20 percent of its wastewater.
The information and communication tech (ICT) sector, which includes smartphones and laptops, is another significant emitter. Currently, it accounts for 1.8 to 2.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but some researchers are estimating that number will increase to over 14 percent by 2040. Doesn’t that make the biannual “time for an upgrade” call you get from your cellphone provider seem extra-irksome?
What are the advantages of a circular system?
Linear economies weren’t always the norm. Without human intervention, our planet’s waste-disposal system is naturally circular. An apple that falls from a tree is left to sow its seeds, which grow more trees; insects and small animals are preyed upon by larger predators and, in the end, also return to the earth and enrich the soil.
Even ancient human societies followed this tradition of reusing, repurposing and eventually returning items to the earth. In the Paleolithic era, old hand axes were broken down to create flint tools. And in the Bronze Age, people used clay from the earth to craft ceramic and pottery items, and once those ceramics were no longer useful, they were ground to powder and used to create mud bricks for homes.
What does a modern circular economy look like?
A modern circular economy follows this tradition, with certain updates for our contemporary age. In it, items are purpose-built so they can be broken down, and each part can be repaired, reused or recycled to create more products.
There’s much less extraction of new materials within a circular economy, and much less disposal. Instead, everything from your burnt-out motherboard to your frayed cotton shirt can be repaired or remade into a new product. Or, if you’ve got an unwanted item that’s still in decent shape, it can be sold rather than thrown out.
The potential impact of this kind of system is huge: By 2032, if we shifted toward a circular economy, we could reduce global carbon emissions by 39 percent and cut our material footprint by 28 percent.
A circular economy in action: car sharing programs
One major industry that’s getting a serious push toward circularity is car sharing, which is essentially a rental service where people can use vehicles for short periods of time (say, an hour or two). In North America, this sector is expected to grow by 35 percent and hit a market valuation exceeding $4.8 billion by the end of 2024 (up from $626 million in 2016).
What are the benefits of car sharing services?
Instead of encouraging individuals to buy private cars that stay parked 95 percent of the time, a thoughtfully designed car-sharing program would greatly reduce the total number of private vehicles both on and off the road. It would also create some interesting environmental benefits, such as:
Squeezing more mileage out of each vehicle.
Currently, the average American car drives 11,400 miles per year, while a shared car is driven almost 30,000 miles in the same period, thanks to being in nearly continual use by renters.
Maximizing manufacturing efficiency.
With proper government support, car manufacturers can begin to refine and decarbonize the manufacturing process. Remanufactured parts will prevent new materials from being introduced, manufacturing plants could run on clean energy and batteries could be matched to their ideal usage.
Creating more recycling and reuse possibilities.
These days, cars aren’t designed to be disassembled, and most aluminum from cars is downcycled into a lesser-quality product. But if a modular manufacturing model were introduced to create these fleets of cars, repair work would be standardized and each constituent part would be designed to be easily recovered and fit into another car.
Reducing fuel reliance.
A circular car-sharing program would swap out traditional vehicles for electric vehicles (EVs), which would wipe out their overall fuel reliance.
Reducing raw materials extraction.
Some of the most carbon-consuming stages of an EV’s lifecycle are extracting materials for and manufacturing lithium-ion batteries and sourcing building materials, such as aluminum and carbon steel. But with fewer parts going to waste, fewer raw materials would need to be used.
How else does car sharing help the environment?
Currently, road transportation accounts for 11.9 percent of our annual global carbon emissions, and it’s growing faster than any other sector. A sharp turn toward a circular economy isn’t an ambitious dream—it’s a very real necessity for curbing climate change.
Circular car sharing programs have revolutionary potential.
Creating a circular system of sharing (rather than private ownership) for these cars would offer two other big benefits.
1. Fewer cars would need to be built.
Thoughtfully designed car sharing networks would require fewer cars to keep up with the same level of demand. Remember, private cars are only driven about 5 percent of the time.
2. Planet-friendly habits would become, well, habits.
Because users are charged a fee each time they need to take a car out, they’d be more likely to walk or bike on those fewer-than-two-mile jaunts that account for more than 35 percent of all car trips.
6 simple ways you can embrace the circular economy
Car sharing is just one example of how a major industry change could significantly reduce global carbon emissions. The same principles could be applied just as seamlessly to other industries—especially the ones that are having the biggest impact on the planet.
Low quality products created for short-term use eat up precious, finite resources and then keep piling up in landfills. Fortunately, these practices are beginning to change, thanks to some of the biggest companies in the world, which are incorporating circularity in their business models.
But it’s not just up to corporations to implement new measures. Here are six ways you can personally reduce waste and adopt a more circular lifestyle.
1. Keep your cellphone for longer
It used to be that when your phone broke, you had almost no choice but to get a new one. But now, we know more about the real cost of our smartphones. Instead of upgrading your phone every few years or tossing it when it starts to die, consider sending it back for repairs or ordering new parts and trying your hand at cellphone repair.
Now that Apple has jumped on the right-to-repair bandwagon, there could be more options to extend the lifespan of your mobile phone in the near future.
2. Buy refurbished electronics
The circular economy is already changing the long-held assumption that just because something is used, it’s somehow of lesser quality. Brands like Ecobee, Dyson, Google, Microsoft and Sonos have been selling authorized refurbished versions of their products for years.
These refurbished items are the same quality as the devices you would buy new, and often come with the same warranty. The upside is that they’re made from used and/or repaired parts and come at a lower price point. Now that’s a win-win-win.
3. Choose preloved fashions
The manufacturing of cheap goods has been tied to myriad detrimental impacts to humans and the natural world—all in the service of a T-shirt that might only be worn a handful of times.
Thankfully, there are tons of second-hand clothing markets available, from ThredUp, which buys and sells used clothing for cheap, to luxury consignment shops where you can get coveted pieces no one else has.
4. Rent or sell your furniture back
Furniture giant Ikea has started recognizing its own outsized contribution to the rise of disposable furniture and is taking steps to make its operations circular. On top of being able to sell back their used Ikea furniture, customers can also rent and buy refurbished furniture in-store, depending on which country they live in.
But Ikea isn’t the only furniture company out there giving consumers circular options when it comes to decking out their homes. Feather lets you rent or buy pieces online to suit your stage of life, and you can always score great used finds by scouring your local online markets like Kijiji, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
5. Extend the life of your clothing
Are some of your beloved articles of clothing looking a bit, well, worn? Rather than trash these pieces, you can repair them and give them a new lease on life. Tailors and cobblers are easy to find in most cities, and some companies have their own in-house alterations and repair services.
As for some clothing brands helping the cause, you can get in-store repairs on all your beat-up Patagonia clothing and gear, while Nordstrom has tailoring and alterations services available for easy fixes and to make sure you get your perfect fit—no matter where you got your pieces from.
6. Scour your own neighbourhood for reusable goods
While it’s great that big household brands are embracing the circular economy, you can support local and cut waste in your own community without shipping items long distances.
From hitting up local repair cafes, browsing listings on Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace, and posting in neighbourhood community groups, there are a variety of ways to access the treasure trove of gently used items in your own backyard. And when you’ve outgrown your own items, think about giving them a quick clean and repair job and sending them off to someone else who needs them.
Enjoy a circular way of life
The circular economy doesn’t require you to shed all your material possessions, give your phone away or adopt a Spartan lifestyle. You can still be stylish and comfortable, and support your preferred brands, when you’re living with circularity. You’ll just have the added bonus of loving your favourite items longer and making sure they can have another life, even after you’re done with them.
This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.