It’s seems the word “recycling” is no longer in vogue for non-profits that focus on sustainability. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation instead extolls the virtues of a a “circular economy” where “products do not quickly become waste, but are reused to extract their maximum value before safely and productively returning to the biosphere”. While the terminology is different, the idea seems to be the same: the Earth is resource limited and as stewards of this planet, it’s our job to use - and reuse - those resources smartly.

I stumbled across the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report while crosschecking some sources in Kyle Wien’s recent Harvard Business Review piece titled “We’re Running Out of Resources, and It’s Going to Be OK”. He links to the foundation’s report when he wrote “…The average consumer buys over 2,200 lbs of material per year; 80% of these materials end up in incinerators, landfills, or as wastewater”. To quote the foundation’s report directly:

“The goods an OECD citizen buys for consumption annually—800 kg of food and beverages, 120 kg of packaging, and 20 kg of new clothing and shoes—are, for the most part, not returned for any further economic use. In the current ‘take-make-dispose’ system, around 80 per cent of these materials will end up in incinerators, landfill or wastewater. They come to a dead end.”

While Wien’s math is a little off (800 + 120 + 20 = 940 kg = 2,072.35 lbs) his point is well taken. Much of what we - consumers - buy, has a relatively limited lifespan in the big scheme of things. As such, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s circular model proposes that businesses look not only to the Earth for the raw inputs to their products but also to the world of used materials.

Buckle up if this sounds interesting to you; the full report is 111 pages. For those simply looking for a bit of education, you’ll be delighted to know the executive summary is only 6 pages in length.