Two circles representing circular economy
Circular economy

Is there more to a circular economy than recycling?

Many people have become accustomed to recycling - but with circularity now the talk of the town, there is some confusion around how these two differ and around what the role of recycling is within a full circular economy. So what does circular economy mean, and how does recycling fit into it? And what is the difference between circularity and recycling?

“People have rightly been taught that recycling is good,” says David Greenfield, Vice President of the Circular Economy Institute. “That message is now widespread - so asking people to think about dematerialisation, reuse, remanufacture, that is a new set of messages that many people just see as an extension of recycling.”

But while recycling is indeed an important part of the puzzle when it comes to circularity and a circular economy, they are not the same thing and the latter is, in fact, a much wider concept.

“A circular system differs from a conventional linear system in that it is, indeed, a loop instead of a line with a clear beginning and an end. Circular systems use recycled feeds as inputs; hence recycling is an important part of the circular system,” says Petri Lehmus, Vice President Research and Development at Neste, a global leader in the production of renewable diesel, sustainable aviation fuel as well as renewable and circular feedstock for renewable polymers and chemicals.

So is recycling an integral part of any circular system? To answer that question, we first need to understand exactly what “circularity” means, and that’s a tricky question.

“It's not so easy to really define what it is,” adds Lehmus, “so most people use the terms without really thinking very much what it means.”

What does circularity mean?

Not everybody uses the same definition of circularity, but there are some concepts of circular systems that many people do agree on. In its simplest form, Lehmus says that circularity can be described as “a system which avoids waste and where something is used again and again."

David Greenfield describes circularity through a definition that the Circular Economy Institute uses: "A circular economy is defined as an alternative to the current linear economy in which we take resources, produce, consume and generate waste. In a circular economy, systems and products are designed to eliminate the concept of waste, by enabling the recovery and reuse of all materials at the highest value possible at all times."

Even though there is no universal definition, the general agreement is that circularity involves a loop where waste is used as a source for something new. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples of circularity

One example of circularity is the combination of chemical and mechanical recycling of plastics to divert plastic waste from being directed to landfills or incineration and back into use.

“You cannot mechanically recycle a product too many times because the quality starts to deteriorate,” says Lehmus, “but by adding a complementary chemical recycling stream, where plastic waste is converted into feedstock that can be used to make new plastics, there are more opportunities for bringing plastic waste back into the system.”

“Circularity aims to minimize the use of virgin fossil resources,” adds Lehmus. 

And this is also true for renewable products that are based on circulating renewable carbon instead of tapping into virgin fossil carbon sources. Good examples are, for example, ethanol produced from food waste or renewable diesel made from used cooking oil - and using a small portion of that same fuel to power the vehicles used to collect the waste.

“By applying circular principles across a product or material life cycle, carbon emission can be dramatically reduced,” says Greenfield.

Recycling vs circular economy

So what can we conclude? As the examples show, recycling certainly plays a part in a circular economy, but there is more to circular economy than recycling. Rather than merely focusing on whether a product can be recycled after use, transitioning to a circular economy requires us to go further, to develop new partnerships, technologies and circular value chains, for example, to enable such large-scale circularity in the entire society.

Great strides have been achieved so far in changing behaviors to make recycling more mainstream in everyday lives. From that, scaling up to circularity and a circular economy model is a next level systemic  transformation, one to look out for as the next great leap in the increasingly urgent fight against climate change.

Credits:

Dr. Eva Amsen, a science writer and communicator whose work has appeared on Forbes, Nautilus and The Scientist. Twitter

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