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What is the circular economy?

How (and why) can the circular economy change the way we produce and consume?

The circular economy is an old concept brought back into fashion with the transition to sustainability, promoting a more responsible use of resources in production and consumption, but also a more socially progressive economic model. 

The development of the circular economy

Each day, it is gaining ground slightly more in our everyday lives… There are examples all around us without us sometimes even noticing. Here is one, with this backpack made from recycled plastic bottles.Or this one, a piece of furniture bought on a second-hand street market, which is subsequently reused by its second or third household. Again, with this bike, which we thought had had it but ended up getting repaired in a workshop on the street corner. In our refurbished smartphone, our water bottle that we have consciously filled up with tap water, and even (above all?)… in our bins, a fraction of which is being more and more upcycled.

In short, the circular economy refers to rethinking how we consume: instead of buying a product, using it and throwing it away (= linear economy),
the aim is to make this product last (along with the raw materials thanks to upcycling and recycling) as long as possible, by buying second-hand, leading it, renting it, getting it repaired... with recycling being the ultimate step when all the other solutions have been used. All this is encouraged and supported by companies on board with providing services (and products) aligned with this approach.

The good news is that the circular economy is growing all the time. The other good news is that the circular economy represents a wealth of job opportunities (and more broadly speaking, the International Bureau Organization was already highlighting, in 2018, the close ties between the environment and work).
If this renaissance needs to still be even more and even better supported, it remains, in more ways than one, a highly positive signal: for the environment, of course, but also for the ties it forges between the economy, society and people. An overview of a valuable concept, from its origins to its current incarnations.

Where does the circular economy come from?

The circular economy wasn't born yesterday quite the opposite! Before being coined this way, from the 1990s onwards, the model existed a (very) long time ago under other names.
"The circular economy model is old, as numerous historical studies confirm. It can even be considered that it was the dominant model up until the end of the 19th century", recalled the researchers Helen Micheaux, Rémi Beulque and Franck Aggeri in their book on the subject, The circular economy (Published by La Découverte, 2023).
At the time, they wrote, "the term waste was by the way not commonly used", and "everything was reused or left to naturally deteriorate". And, quoting a few examples: clothes reused to produce paper, sewage sludge for fertilizer, bones transformed into bone glue, fat into candles, etc. A circular economy generates a multitude of jobs and closely connects towns, industry and agriculture.

Eclipsed by the industrial revolution and the emergence of the model said to be "linear", the circular economy made its comeback at the end of the 20th century in the wake of sustainable development.The concept itself was formulated in an economic textbook in 1989 before spreading and establishing itself from 2010 onwards as a means for trying to prevent planetary boundaries being exceeded.

Definition of the circular economy

If no official definition exists, let's refer to this one, formulated by ADEME (French agency for sustainability transformation) and which summarises the concept well:
"The circular economy is an economic exchange and manufacturing system, which at every stage of products (goods and services) life cycle, aims to increase the efficiency of resource used and reduce the environmental impact, while helping people's well-being. "

The circular economy subsequently aims to reduce waste by moving away from a linear economy model considered detrimental, founded on the opposite logic: extract-manufacture-consume-throw away. The ultimate objective of the circular economy is an endless product life cycle without waste. 3 major stages exist to achieve this: la manufacturing, consumption and waste processing.

Practically speaking, we often refer to the circular economy's 4 "R". These are the four main strategies to help put it in motion:
. REDUCE: in other words, reduce the consumption of natural resources (energy, water, etc.) and the generation of waste (one avenue is the Minimal Waste Design for example).
. REUSE: not produce unnecessary new materials and products.
. REPAIR: extend products' lifespan.
. RECYCLE: create new products without extracting new raw materials.

These 4 "Rs" are sometimes complemented by other words, such as REFUSE (buying what we don't really need), RENOVATE (instead of rebuild), or even RETHINK (your lifestyle and consumption).

Please note that research teams now distinguish two types of circular economy depending on the efforts and investments made:
. weak circularity, which involves a marginal adaptation of the dominant linear model,
. strong circularity, which is more ambitious and focuses on sobriety, extending products' life span and increasing their use.

Waste management, recycling... what are the benefits of the circular model?

Environmental benefits

The circular economy is far from only concerned with environmental issues, given it aims to make gains on several fronts.

The environmental benefits: in light of the climate crisis, among other things, it's the benefit that today is the most talked about. The circular economy is about being sparing, rational and responsible, slowing down the exploitation of natural resources and the amount of waste to be processed. There are multiple gains to be had: by extracting fewer resources, we limit the impact on ecosystems, the destruction of habitats and the emission of pollutants. We are, consequently, putting the brakes on the erosion of biodiversity, one of our greatest allies in the fight against global warming.

What is more, by producing less and reusing more, the circular economy helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Let us remind ourselves here that, according to the European Environmental Agency, manufacturing and use of products are responsible for 9.10 % of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Waste management accounts for 3.32%.

However, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation , tells us that implementing circular economy strategies in 5 key areas (cement, aluminium, steel, plastic and food) would help, by 2050, to eliminate close to half of global greenhouse gas emissions linked to manufacturing goods, meaning 9.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

What is the circular economy?

Economic and social benefits

From an economic standpoint, circularity has numerous virtues. It increases companies' competitiveness, encourages innovation, and generates jobs.The circular economy could create 700,000 jobs in the EU by 2030, most of which would be long-term and not relocated.
Proof of this potential: it is estimated that repair and reuse activities or waste recycling produce 25 times more jobs than disposing waste in landfills!
Another vital benefit: citizens and consumers will make substantial savings from resorting to second-hand, repairs and reuse.

Strategic advantages

Circularity increases the economy's resilience by reducing its dependence on raw materials. The economy gains stability, being less vulnerable to fluctuations (prices and procurement) on international markets and, above all, independence, a real strategic advantage in the context of surging global demand. The Eurostat Institute estimates the EU currently imports approximately half of the raw materials it consumes.

The circular economy's tools

The circular economy, which is making headway in some regions (including the EU), still has a long way to go. According to a Circle Economy Foundation report, the world economy's circularity has actually... declined in recent years! Slowed by the growing extraction of raw materials, it has dropped from 9.1 % in 2018 to 7.2 % in 2023.

It is subsequently urgent to use the levers at our disposal. They include:
- Eco-design: It is one of the key prerequisites for extending products' life cycle. Almost 80 % of a product's environmental impact is determined during its design stage! This means factoring in how products are dismantled, repaired and recycled before manufacturing.

- Recycling: a necessary life cycle stage. A simple example: mobile phones have 200 times more gold in a ton than a natural goldmine! It is therefore necessary to develop the recycling sector and raise public awareness.

- Local and community-based channels: buying locally helps to activate local distribution channels that are part of the circular economy. Think in terms of consumer buying groups that support a local farmer while forging ties between citizens and their area.

- Second-hand: the used goods market is a central part of the circular economy because it helps to reduce new manufacturing (the much talked about "Reduce"). Clothing, books, sports gear, electronic equipment… there is no shortage of buy-sell options!

- Maintenance and repair: to extend products life span, delaying when they reach their end-of-life and reducing the amount of waste generated. It results in the repair of products that are sometimes defective, replacing used parts, regular care and proactive maintenance. Prevention being better than the cure!

- The sharing economy. "Peer-to-peer" exchanges, which involve sharing or exchanging goods or services between consumers, are developing.Let's mention here ride sharing or car sharing between private individuals; leasing, exchanging or hiring equipment (DIY, for example); or even service exchange systems.

Generally speaking, the product-service system, as opposed to the traditional goods ownership model, presents an effective alternative: less manufacturing and less waste (reduced product manufacturing results in reduced consumption of natural resources - raw materials, energy, water). Extending lifespan is also reappraised from the design phase, with products being designed for intensive and sustainable use, encouraging their repair, reuse and refurbishment before being recycled at the end-of-life. In short, it is always about the same principles: use, repair, make it last… Recycling is seen as the ultimate solution.

What is the circular economy?

How do we implement a shift towards the circular economy?

The transition towards a circular economy involves a change in the collective paradigm.

It necessarily means mobilising all those with an active role to play:
The individual: adopting more responsible consumer behaviour.
Companies: eco-designing products, developing repair and upcycling models.
Public authorities: putting in place suitable incentives and regulations.

What is the circular economy?

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