Circular Economic Theory: An Idea Whose Time is Now

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Tompkins Weekly      2-23-22

It is time to be social again, and now, people are planning for their greatest events. After much uncertainty through the pandemic times, one thing is certain: businesses have adapted to survive. There is a shift in how things get done because now, there is a greater concern for health practices, environmental impacts and financial stability.

The food industry has seen incredible upheaval as in-person dining declined exponentially and takeout business boomed. Takeout container waste, already a problem prior to the pandemic, exploded in quantity at an alarming rate. By some estimates, takeout and food packaging comprise 60% of the American solid waste stream. There is a need for circular economy solutions as public health and climate change concerns related to waste grow daily.

According to the European Parliament, a circular economy is “a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing … existing materials and products as long as possible.” The prevailing current model of extract, refine, manufacture, distribute, use and throw away, commonly known as make-take-waste, is a linear economic model.

Eunice Grande. Photo provided.

Circular economy ideas are not new. For example, milk and yogurt were, and are again, available in glass containers that are returned for re-use, without going through the recycling process. Since 2014, the very conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce has held annual summits premised on the necessity of adopting this model, seeing the linear economy as no longer viable.

To achieve a successful circular economy, we have to think about how we design our products. At the moment, we take a linear economic model approach in which we extract resources from our environment to create something new and then dump it out into the landfills when we no longer use it. This model leads us to live in a toxic dump and eventually the exhaustion of the planet’s resources.

A circular economy model eliminates the waste. Nothing gets thrown away, and instead, every single component of a product at the end of its lifetime is able to be handled in a way that is not detrimental to our ecosystems. The late architect Bill McDonough called it a “cradle to cradle” approach.

Back to the European Union again, we see a model called extended producer responsibilities whereby the manufacturers are accountable for the environmental impacts of their products.

When we solve one problem, such as garbage creation, through switching to durable, reusable dishes instead of disposables, we put pressure on other points in our ecosystem. In this case, using reusables puts more pressure on the need for fuel and water to wash the dishes. The resulting hot greywater is another form of waste.

Greywater is the water leftover from washing dishes, laundry and taking showers and can be rediverted for other purposes. An example of this was done in a 2016 study by the Swedish government. They redesigned plumbing systems in 100 homes to collect and separate greywater in order to reuse it in a heat exchanger to preheat fresh water. The pre-warmed water then feeds a heater that modulates based on the amount of energy needed to bring it to usable temperatures.

These are just a couple of examples of circular economy thinking, but they highlight its ability to lighten our dependence, not just on the Earth to act as our waste receptacle but also on long supply chains.

As the pandemic has highlighted, reliance on long, complicated supply chains makes us vulnerable to bumps in the system. Disruptions due to extreme weather events and labor unrest have brought about a growing awareness of this weakness. Re-use keeps our material economy local, creating business opportunities and jobs to keep things circulating.

Dish Truck is one such business, with its mission to provide durable dishes for use at events instead of disposables, along with compost collection. While on pause for much of the pandemic, there is a revival plan in the works to include a reusable takeout container program.

An outgrowth of over six years of work with local festivals, restaurant caterers and event coordinators, the system will provide another avenue of waste reduction and circular economy in practice. It is in response to not only a personal drive to reduce waste but also to consumer demand for such services as others look to lessen their impacts as well.

A recent webinar on takeout container waste reduction drew nearly 300 people from across not only New York but also the country and beyond.

Taking circular economy from theory into practice allows us to realize that what we need already exists. We can save energy and money by working with what we already created. It brings the opportunity for innovation by reflecting on design ideas and updating our materials handling practices.

Companies and organizations now get to visualize the positive environmental impacts they make as they incorporate ambitious goals towards zero waste. While the industrial revolution brought us great mobility and quality of life, the evolution to a circular economy will allow us to deepen that quality through allowing us to enjoy the material benefits of industrialization without the coinciding harms to the source from which it all comes. Ma terre (my land).

Eunice Grande (she/her) is a site lead for the COVID-19 surveillance testing program at Cornell University. Her goals are to spread environmental awareness, pursue a career in veterinary nursing and create her own business.

Joey Diana Gates is a world wandering zero waste enthusiast and the founder of Dish Truck. Visit

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