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Why the future of environmentalism looks like a circular economy

Ellen MacArthur started out as a sailor. At 24 she came in second in an offshore sailing race. A few years later she became the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe alone. She sailed over 26,000 miles and spent 71 days alone with only the resources she brought on the boat. That’s where she realized the importance of managing finite resources well. The realization planted a seed for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which she created to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy makes use of all our resources instead of wasting them in landfills. It is called a “circular economy” because a circle never ends, and our economy is all our wealth and resources. In a circular economy, our resources are continuously regenerated and nature is restored. Old products become new. New companies and domestic jobs are created. Renewable energy is used to power factories and transportation.

In a circular economy, resources and energy are abundant because they are never lost.

What is a linear economy?

In a linear economy, most of our resources are taken from nature, used briefly, then thrown away. In 2015: 52% of the municipal solid waste ended up in landfills, 25.8% was recycled, 8.9% was composted, and 12.8% was combusted with energy recovery according to Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet. The waste turns into methane, toxic waste, and plastic pollution that clogs the ocean and poisons wildlife.

The principles of a circular economy

The term circular economy is not a catchphrase. It’s a movement. It’s a systemic change that requires businesses and policies to turn course together. The principles behind the circular economy were shaped by a few ideas and thought leaders. 

Cradle to Cradle

Waste should be used as food for something new. What we think of as waste becomes a nutrient for something new in a circular economy. There are two types of nutrients: technical and biological. Technical nutrients go into things like computers and iPhones. Biological nutrients are things like uneaten food and paper that can no longer be recycled. These ideas were first outlined by Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.


We often think of nature as something we take from. Instead, we can learn from nature and use it as a model when we create. We can also use nature to determine how sustainable a product is based on how it compares to natural systems. The principles of biomimicry can be found in “Biomimicry, Innovation Inspired by Nature” by Janine M. Benyus.

Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism calls for a new industrial revolution that does not harm the environment. It outlines how businesses can create jobs, grow the economy and still protect the environment. Innovative businesses have the opportunity to work within nature’s boundaries and still thrive. Natural Capitalism’s Co-author Paul Hawken most recently wrote

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, which ranks the top 100 solutions to climate change. Co-author Amory Lovins is a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that helps companies and governments transition to clean energy. Co-author L. Hunter Lovins writes and speaks about creating sustainable businesses.

Performance economy

Walter Stahel introduced the idea of companies selling goods as a service that is eventually returned to the company. When the product comes back, it’s disassembled, re-invented, and sold as something new. The purpose is to keep products within the smallest loop possible rather than getting shipped away to be recycled or thrown away. 

Blue Economy

The Blue Economy is a book and website by Gunter Pauli with over 100 case studies describing how companies can create jobs and businesses out of waste. One case study describes how Tetra Pak packaging can be broken down and turned into new materials, in effect creating five new businesses.

Industrial Ecology

Industrial ecology is a science dedicated to decreasing waste and energy from industrial flows. The focus is on how to minimize waste from manufacturing and create something new instead. It’s also called the science of sustainability. 

Regenerative Design

Regenerative design principles focus on how natural systems can be designed to continuously create something new. The idea is to not waste natural resources. John T. Lyle founded the idea of regenerative design and is considered one of the fathers of the circular economy.


Splosh is a UK-based cleaning company that sells one kit with empty cleaning bottles and cleaning packets. You add the packets and water to the bottles. This gives you cleaning products that require less packaging, shipping, storage space and, waste. You buy the re-fill packets, not the large cleaning containers we’re used to that contain mostly water.

Good design and reusable materials

Design products using materials that eventually turn into technical or biological nutrients. For example, Ecovative Design uses mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) to create packaging materials like foam and molded shapes. After the packaging is used, it is designed to decompose and become a biological nutrient instead of waste.


Upcycling uses materials that would otherwise be wasted and turns them into something new. For example, Rothy’s shoes are made of post-consumer recycled water bottles from the United States. The bottles are broken down into the fibers used to create the top of the shoe. The upcycled fibers are attached to the sole, which is made of upcycled rubber.

Reverse logistics

I’ll continue using the Rothy’s analogy; When you’re done wearing Rothy’s you can send them back to the company. Using reverse logistics the company takes the product back to be upcycled again or re-purposed.

Repurpose and rebuild 

When the product comes back it is repurposed or re-built into something new. Then the company that originally made it has the opportunity to sell it again as something new. The material is not wasted in a landfill and the company makes money again. 


Remanufacturing (reman) is another way companies can reduce waste, and keep customers happy. Caterpillar rebuilds and repairs their machines rather than asking customers to continuously buy new ones. Reusing components saves materials, energy, and money.


Recycling converts waste like plastic, aluminum, and paper into new materials that can be used again. The problem with recycling today is that a lot of it is shipped to other countries. This is expensive, uses non-renewable energy, and removes the jobs and materials from the domestic economy. So although recycling is a big part of creating a circular economy, it’s essential we first design things to be re-purposed, re-built, and remanufactured to keep the economic loop as small as possible.

Favorable conditions

To keep materials inside a circular economy, organizations and policies need to make re-using and upcycling easy. For example, organizations like Circle Economy are creating a global, online marketplace for the recovery, reuse, and resale of excess fabric. Instead of wasting the textile scraps that can’t be used, Circle Economy creates a place where companies can buy and trade materials.

Ellen MacArthur 

Today Ellen MacArthur leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation instead of circumnavigating the world. She works with companies and governments to create circular processes for things like plastics and textiles. Watch the below three-minute video to see what a circular economy would look like. 

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