Circular Economy? What's that?

Circular Economy? What's that?

Each day, most of us wake up to a bowl of cereal mixed with milk, a typical breakfast to many families. In fact, according to, 283.39 million Americans consumed breakfast cereals (cold) in 2020. These numbers show the deep love for this easy yet fantastic breakfast. 

Recently I watched a cooking show on Netflix and something stuck with me when one of the chefs said people who love food ask about the people who grow it. This made me wonder, as people who love the environment, why do we not ask about the people that handle our everyday packaging material? For example, when we have breakfast, how many of us have paused and questioned the packaging journey that comes with our cereal or milk container, do we want to learn what happens to the packaging after consumption, and more importantly, if our packaging contributes to the circular economy? 

My guess is most of us don't bother to think about the journey our packaged products go through. Perhaps it's because we are unaware of the vital role packaging plays in our fight against climate change and how a truly circular economy will accelerate our environmental restoration. 

Circular Economy? What's that? 

In the eight years I have spent running circular economy projects (more especially, recycling and waste management), I have realized that our understanding of what a circular economy is has the power to influence our everyday actions. 

Today, we extract raw materials from Mother Earth to make a wide variety of materials like our beloved cereal box and milk container; after consumption, we throw them away as waste, buy more, and repeat the same process. This process is linear and very damaging to our planet. We must move away from the linear process (Single Use Economy) to a circular process (Circular Economy). 

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.

It is based on three principles, driven by design:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution
  2. Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
  3. Regenerate nature

The circular economy is more than just a trendy concept, it is realizing that our current way of living is very unsustainable and change must happen as soon as yesterday. Today, the global economy is consuming 100 billion tonnes of materials a year but only 8.6% is circular.

GINO VAN BEGIN Secretary General at ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability once said “The circularity gap is widening, and with it, the climate and biodiversity impacts of our extractive economies. To confront environmental challenges and deliver socio-economic benefits, we must rethink how we consume and dispose of materials". I understand that words like "rethink" or "Change" can be very scary for most of us, more especially since we are very comfortable with the current ways of doing things. However, rethinking how we produce, purchase, consume and reuse brings a lot of opportunities (economically and environmentally). 

Research shows that the circular economy offers a $4.5 trillion economic opportunity by reducing waste, stimulating innovation and creating employment. New business models focused on reuse, repair, remanufacturing and sharing models offer significant innovation opportunities. 

For this economic opportunity to be unlocked, we need to revisit all important parts of our value chain: 

  1. Production and Purchasing (Designing better products that are easy to recycle or reuse, reducing our wasteful processes, and optimizing our lifestyles for alternative consumption) 
  2. Consumption and Use ( We need to promote reuse of materials and eliminate single-use of materials with multiple purposes and more importantly, we need to change our perception of what waste is) 
  3. Collection and Processing ( recycling, and collection of our materials, so they end up back in the value chain) 

I shall be explaining the principles of a circular economy and what it involves in detail with practical examples in upcoming posts. But, in the meantime, I challenge you to think about the journey of your cereal box and milk container tomorrow when you have breakfast.