The term ‘circular economy’ has become a popular buzzword in government reports, at industry conferences and even on the websites of popular consumer brands. In its ideal form, a circular economy is far more than a buzzword, it’s a vision for an economic system that operates within nature’s limits, creates more resilient communities and builds social capital. It’s the opposite of where we are right now.

Closing the loop

The concept of ‘closed loop’ or circular economies has been around since the 1970s, but it has become more popularized in recent years because of the growing recognition that our current linear “take-make-waste-repeat” economy isn’t sustainable and that continuing to turn our planet’s precious, and dwindling, natural resources into garbage doesn’t make environmental or economic sense.

Illustration: Sebastien Thibault

Circular or closed loop systems…

  • are regenerative
  • use renewable sources of energy
  • prioritize zero waste through reuse-refill-return models, sharing, leasing, repairing, refurbishing and remanufacturing materials and products as long as possible
  • build social and natural capital in harmony with economic capital
  • design pollution out of the equation 
  • respect nature’s limits

How to start rounding our linear system

To transform to a circular economy, what do we need to do? We need to start by taking a bird’s eye view of our current system, dominant business models, and social structures to see where exactly we’ve gone wrong. The throwaway culture has been praised since the 1950s for its convenience. But in reality, this so-called convenience is based on a heavy extractive and wasteful model that has fuelled multiple environmental crises and social injustices we are facing today.

Plastic packaging on store shelves at a retailer in Virginia.

We need to rethink and redesign those business models, help shift people’s mindsets about our relationship with nature and quality of life, and create the conditions for positive and widespread social change that benefits the masses, including other beings on this planet, not the few.   

It’s not only a system reboot, it’s a system reprogram. It’s no small task but it’s doable if we build on the momentum of existing corners of society that are already modelling a circular vision, and start to phase out key linear model crutches, such as multiple subsidies to the fossil fuel and petrochemical sectors.

Closed-loop models exist all around us. They are some of the oldest, tried tested and true ways of consuming in a more sustainable and socially responsible way. It’s not a new concept, it’s just one we’ve had to name as we’ve lost sight of co-existing with the natural world. Some examples? Organic farms that use regenerative agriculture techniques, deliver produce directly to people, without packaging, without travelling hundreds of kilometres, and where the food scraps go into a composter. Community bike share, tool share, or other share programs where items get repaired and refurbished and source materials are from non-extractive origin. Companies offering their products, sourced or created within nature’s limits, in reusable, returnable, refillable packaging that can be used hundreds of times before created again, not losing material value. Taking a look at how different models can fit and work together, to create one circular economy, is the scaling and holistic approach we need. 

Disposables don’t belong in our circular future

Like oil and ocean water, certain things just don’t mix with a true circular economy. Single-use plastics is one of them. Disposable plastics are a symbol of everything we need to leave behind – fossil fuel dependency, waste-generating products, a throwaway culture, disproportionate negative social impacts, and a threat to biodiversity and planetary health.

The Canadian government has increasingly thrown around the term circular economy and zero waste when it comes to tackling our plastics problem, but unfortunately like various other terms denoting a greener approach, industry has worked to co-opt the meaning of circular economy and zero waste, creating confusion, watering down the concepts and working to convince government that we can have it all – disposables, a circular economy and a magical zero plastic waste future.

Wrong. To date, Canada has only managed to recycle 9% of its plastic waste. And the solutions proposed by the industry, such as 100% recyclable, biodegradable or compostable packaging, in no way meet the founding principles of a circular economy, such as limiting resource extraction or maintaining the value of materials used. As the Canadian government creates the country’s post-pandemic recovery plan, it must leave carbon-intensive, polluting industries behind, and that means cutting our reliance on non-essential plastics.

Keeping up the pressure for our single-use plastic-free future

The feds have said that they will be delaying the previously promised single-use plastic ban that was set to roll out in 2021. Choosing to look on the bright side, we can use this time to make it crystal clear to the government that this extension must be used to create a comprehensive ban list and not settle for a piecemeal approach to phasing out problem plastics.

If you haven’t already, take a look at the 5 actions you can take for a plastic-free future. We need to keep making it clear that we can move away from single-use plastics and a move toward a green and just economy.

Already ploughed through the action page? Ask your friends and family to join you in taking action.

On an individual level, if we collectively begin to break free from the ‘stuff’ we’re told we need, the habits we’re told are ‘conveniences’, and the lifestyles we’re told we should be living, we can model the future we want and amplify the work and vision of changemakers all around us. Join the Reuse Revolution work to Build Back Better.

Tell the federal government Reduce and Reuse are key for Canada’s zero plastic waste strategy

The Trudeau government has said it will ban single-use plastics by 2021. We need a strong ban that covers all the problematic and unnecessary plastics in our lives.

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