Over the past 200 years or so, the populations on our planet have survived and thrived with a linear economy, more commonly referred to as “take, make, waste.” Resources like minerals, fossil fuels, timber, and the like are extracted from the environment and used to make a commodity; the commodity is sold, used and then deposited as trash at the end of its life. This process is not necessarily “bad” – it has created economic wealth, job opportunities and success for corporations and the people they employ. Linear economies have increased our quality of life, reduced mortality rates and enabled a free exchange of cultures and ideas.
A linear economy depends on two basic assumptions: one, that there will always be resources that can be extracted and two, that there will always be an “away” to send our discarded materials. While this seemed to be true at the dawn of the industrial revolution, we’re realizing today that it is not. The world’s population has grown from one billion people in the early 1800s to nearly 7.4 billion today and we are using natural resources faster than they can regenerate. In particular, fossil fuels – which were created over millions of years – cannot be replaced.
Remember the stories of trash barges traveling the eastern seaboard, looking for dump sites? We don’t hear stories like that because in reality, we have plenty of empty land upon which to dig giant holes and bury our used materials. The problem of waste is not finding a place to put it; rather, it’s the idea that precious resources that were extracted in order to become a product are going nowhere. We’re no longer obtaining value from them, they are simply buried underground – and in turn, we have to extract more virgin resources for new products.
The assumptions upon which we’ve based our entire economic system are simply false. A linear economy cannot continue indefinitely – continuing resource constraints are putting business and humanity at risk. The time is now to “close the loop” and create a more circular – and vibrant – economy that incorporates repurposing, redistributing, remanufacturing and reusing resources into our processes.
New economic opportunities are possible! In our next installment of this blog series, we’ll look at how circular economies manifest. Look for it coming soon.