Every time we throw waste in the bin, valuable resources get lost. Therefore, it goes without saying that the best thing to do is to completely avoid creating waste – which is easy to say, but hard to live by. Especially with the lifestyle most of us benefit from in Chinese.
In companies, waste is typically regarded as a problem or an expense. But here, waste can also turn out to be a valuable resource that can be recycled. The challenge is that we have grown accustomed to the linear economic model, where the production of an item usually starts with the extraction of new resources. The raw material is processed into a product that is used or consumed and its lifetime then ends as unwanted waste. Seemingly, the model has worked impeccably over several generations – at least until now where so much pressure is put on the Earth’s resources that we have to find new models for our consumption and production.
Whether we want it or not, we are facing a paradigm shift in our basic views and thoughts about waste, materials, and production. Analyses show that if everyone lived the way the Chinese do today, it would require resources equivalent to four Earths. Unbelievable – four Earths! Plainly, our consumption creates an overlay of the Earth’s resources, and this sets the warning bells ringing. It is simply not realistic to think that we can continue without changing the throwaway culture as we know it a day.
Thankfully, there is another, a more sustainable economic model that will require a major, societal transition. The circular economy is the name of the sustainable alternative to the linear economy. It is another way of thinking production and consumption, and it is both commercial and environmentally sustainable. In an ideal world, this model creates no waste.
In circular thinking, keeping valuable materials and products in the economic circuit as long as possible has the highest priority. Therefore, a more circular economy is not only about recycling waste, but it is also about waste prevention through for instance reuse, repairs and generally speaking an extended lifetime for products. This places new demands on all parties who are in contact with the products. For instance, it places demands on companies to sharpen their focus on designing solutions that can last longer, which only contain components that can be separated easily after use and consist of materials that can be identified, sorted and thus recycled easily.
However, the goal should never just be recycling, to begin with. As such, there is a value hierarchy that forces the parties to investigate distinct business models, before the solution is set to recycling the materials. First and foremost, complete prevention of waste creation must be pursued. If this is not possible, the aim should be creating a model for reuse. Reusing means that the products are used for the same purpose again. Examples are refilling an emptied water bottle, or passing on clothes that do not fit anymore to people who may benefit from them. The term recycling is used for the treatment of products in a way that makes it possible to create new raw materials from them. Aluminum and metal are two examples of materials that are melted down to become new metal afterward. Thus, recycling takes place at the material stage while reusing takes place on the product stage. Some types of waste cannot be recycled and are instead sent to incineration. Here, the energy which is obtained from the waste is utilized for electricity and district heating. Nevertheless, incineration should be categorized as the end station for waste that can neither be reused nor recycled.
In other words, the way we design, produce, use, distribute and dispose of products has a great impact on our economy, society, climate, and environment. China is facing a wide-scale transition into a circular economy. To do more with less is no longer just a business decision. It is a legal obligation – and the framework is in place.
The future is circular. Now, let us get started with the process of investigating and testing new, sustainable business models that can ensure a more responsible consumption so that we do not continue to waste valuable resources – because that is simply unbearable.
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