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Is circular economy same as zero waste economy?

The zero-waste concept, as well as the circular economy concept, criticize the present linear economy model to see how one can redefine the existing one-way process of design and development. The journey of a product from its manufacture to its consumption to its repudiation is closely examined. According to both models, all the materials and processes involved should have lesser impacts ecologically and economically. Both the systems, question and challenge the take-make-waste model and try to work out an alternative that performs better. While having a common aim of environmental conservation, there are differences in the approach that makes a distinctive impact in the implementation of these principles.

What is the zero-waste system?

The zero-waste system looks at responsible consumption of the product to its maximum usage potential and efficient repurposing of its packaging. Recycling of waste materials and treatment of harmful substances before it enters the environment are efforts made by the zero-waste movement. It also aims to recover as many resources as possible to avoid the release of toxic substances and reduce our landfills to nothing. For example, environmental-friendly packaging is one way by which companies try to achieve the goal of zero waste. The end goal is to achieve sustainability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately combat climate change. Though the zero-waste approach is something that could complement the circular economy model, here is what makes it different.

What is a circular economy?

Circular economy attempts at creating more efficient systems which take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of a product, to ensure that even the waste that is produced is of such a high quality that it can be reused in some way or the other. The idea of circular economy is essentially what exists in nature. A circular economy looks at a cycle of generation-consumption-regeneration. This concept first arose in the 1960s, when a group of ecologists, economists, and academic professionals concerned about mankind’s negative impact on the environment, came together to discuss solutions. The idea of the circular economy further evolved into branches and terms like industrial ecology, biomimicry, and regenerative design.

Challenges faced in practicing zero waste

The zero-waste policy became a popular buzzword among the masses initially since it seemed to fit perfectly into everybody’s common goals for a better future. At the policy level, many companies vowed to go zero-waste to show their dedication to saving the planet from a crisis. The issue with the implementation of a zero-waste economy as a policy for companies is that certain loopholes are taken advantage of. Firstly, in a zero-waste system, the responsibility of reducing the waste somehow landed up relatively more upon the consumer. This makes it challenging especially when dealing with materials like plastic and other non-recyclable materials.

The second issue is the fact that many companies took a shortcut by incinerating the leftover waste to pass it off as a zero-waste model on paper, without following the actual spirit of the idea of the zero-waste economic model. Burning waste results in the release of toxic gases, thereby making the air harmful for human beings and all other organisms. By definition of the Zero Waste International Alliance, companies following the zero-waste system should be looking at the creation of products using decomposable or easily recyclable materials, and the end-products must not be burnt. But in practice, that is not what happened in a large number of cases, since it was easy to hide the process of burning waste.

There is another challenge when it comes to practicing the zero-waste concept. For example, many people do not have access to stores where they can buy food items like rice and legumes in bulk. Even environmentally conscious people sometimes do not have a choice but to ‘purchase’ the packaging along with their daily-use products. Due to their location in the neighborhood and the time that they have in hand, it may not be possible to practice these principles as an individual. For example, if somebody decides to eat organic produce only, one may have to buy it in plastic packaging. Then he is left with the option of either buying vegetables that were produced using chemical fertilizers, thereby avoiding the plastic, or buy the organic produce that comes in plastic packaging. Hence, in some situations, consumers are helpless and the issue can then be solved only through policy interventions.

Circular economy policy

Waste is inevitable, and trying to seem like one is practicing ‘zero-waste to landfills’ is a huge opportunity for companies to greenwash themselves. Therefore, the challenges about practicing zero waste are that it is just not possible to produce 100% zero waste or recycle 100% of the waste produced. Sometimes, how certain materials are combined to make a product, makes it unrecyclable or it may have an energy-intensive or water-intensive recycling process. In this scenario, what if we can create a system where the waste generated itself becomes of a different use? What if the waste is of such high quality that it can be repurposed easily and with economic benefits? This is what circular economy aims to achieve through its model.

The policy of circular economy offers a chance for governments and companies to create opportunities that result in better profits economically considering the long-term picture. By avoiding dependency on cheap materials which may or may not be recyclable, the idea is to create long-lasting materials which will not become waste in the first place, and hence the question about recycling comes at a much later stage. At this stage, the product ought to be something that can easily be repurposed or regenerated for another usage, thereby restoring the capital investment further. In 2018, the Ellen McArthur Foundation developed a toolkit for policymakers that can assess a country’s economic position, select focus areas, identify the circular economy opportunities in different sectors, and the possible barriers that may come in the way as well as policies to overcome these barriers.

Ways to reduce waste at homes

Even though the word ‘economy’ sounds like something that can be applied only at a larger scale, each one can practice a closed microeconomy within their homes. There are many examples that one can practice for following circular economy at home. One may think that being someone who is not a policymaker or product designer or associated with the government or big business in any way, there is little that a common man can do to make a change in this regard. Though the impact of the linear model has affected us on a global scale, the efforts to mitigate this can begin locally. Every small impact comes together to make a larger impact. On this note, individuals and small businesses can take part in this initiative in their unique ways. The following are a few examples that can be implemented at a small scale:

  • In a house or apartment, the grey water and black water generated can be repurposed as manure, before it turns into a toxic material.
  • In a home farm, one can look at how to use the by-products of crops as fuel (biofuel) for sustaining the farmhouse itself.
  • It will probably take some time before plastic can get banned on a global level before affordable alternatives enter the picture. Until then, one can look at reusing the plastic that has accumulated for other purposes, before discarding it into a dustbin that will eventually end up in a landfill.
  • When it comes to e-waste, like used smartphones and laptops, instead of discarding them, one can donate it to electronic shops that can work on creating refurbished technology that could be of use to somebody else.
  • Sharing transport options can be a great way to save on fuel.
  • Books can be shared within your community so that each person need not invest in the same book.
  • Fixing items that are reparable like mixers, grinders, and other electronic equipment, rather than buying a brand new replacement at the sign of minor breakdown can be avoided.

Beyond all these small initiatives, the first step that probably anybody can take is to avoid buying things that one ends up never using in the first place. Statistics indicate that people own way more items than what they use regularly, and even without looking at any of the statistics, this can be easily understood if one would take a look around their own homes. As much as the consumers are powerless in some ways, they can still make use of the existing powers that they have to make the most of it.

A circular economy takes inspiration from the natural ecosystem and applies those principles in the man-made world. Natural systems are self-sustaining and the idea is to find ways to design a system that regenerates its resources by itself. Therefore, going zero-waste, as ideal as it sounds needs to be replaced with the idea of making use of items that nobody wants. It is time for the world to take a pause with respect to the generation of fresh resources and make an opportunity out of the humungous number of used resources and so-called waste that is already existing. This can help save costs while serving the planet at the same time.

Originally published at on June 4, 2021.



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Planet Rescue 101

Planet Rescue 101


Helping people transition from a linear to circular economy with efficient waste management and recycling strategies.