A Perfect Loop: Will the Circular Economy Replace Waste with Profit?

In the new Circular Economy, companies are combining competitive business practices with environmental sustainability by bringing innovation to the factory floor. 

“Waste not, want not.” They aren’t just words to live by anymore. A new think-tank in Toronto wants to revolutionize our current economic model by changing how we make things. The Circular Economy Lab is only a year old, but it already has the backing of some of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers of consumer products.

“At the core of our existence as an organization is how we can accelerate the rate of transition to a truly sustainable society,” says David Hughes, CEO of Natural Step Canada, the non-profit organization that manages the Toronto lab.

Proponents of the Circular Economy likes Hughes are seeking a transformation from the linear Take, Make, and Throw Away model to one that leverages technological innovation in the sites where products are built. That means using as few non-renewable resources as possible and permitting virtually no waste.

What is the Circular Economy?

The circular model of production and consumption aims to create a perfect loop of efficiency—whether that’s using renewable energy in manufacturing processes, creating recyclable or compostable packaging from recycled material, or designing long-lasting products that can be re-used, recycled or re-manufactured.

The Circular Economy is about more than eliminating waste, says Chris Lindberg, director of the Circular Economy Lab. “The concept is focused on maximizing value and developing an economy that can de-couple growth and development from reliance on non-renewable resources.”

This model offers a strategy for responding to the challenges faced by business and government: reducing carbon emissions, remaining competitive through innovation, overcoming non-renewable resource scarcity, and reducing environmental degradation.

A massive opportunity for business

The change is already underway, albeit in a scattershot manner, says Lindberg. “There are lots of organizations doing bits and pieces.”

In the U.S, Global Fiberglass Solutions is closing the loop on renewable wind energy. As innovations in wind power offer vast improvements in performance, wind farms are faced with the dilemma of what to do with their obsolete equipment. Global Fiberglass Solutions solves that challenge by recycling old turbine blades into manhole covers, palettes and building panels. GE can then buy back its old wind blades as new products.

A single blade makes about 1,000 pallets that can be used for building walkways or vehicle flooring, and GFSI has recycled a total 564 blades for GE in less than a year. Based on current plans, GFSI estimates that GE could reuse 50 million pounds of waste in the next couple of years.

As more companies implement similar strategies, the circular business model could lead to massive economic benefits here in Canada and around the globe.

“There is a $240 billion economic opportunity for Canada by embracing circular economy strategies and technologies between now and 2030,” Lindberg says. The business consulting firm Accenture Strategy predicts the circle economy could generate $4.5 trillion in additional GDP globally over the same span.

No individual company can bring about the Circular Economy on their own. For the change to be realized, symbiotic partnerships like the collaboration between Global Fibreglass Solutions and GE are essential going forward.

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