The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.


  1. says

    Marc, I was with you pretty much of the way through this fine (as usual) summary and assessment of Circular Economy until the last two sentences – and then the ALERT! button started to flash.

    It’s a great goal to decouple economic growth from environmental restraints but a total pipe dream to ever think that
    “Companies could sell more stuff without generating pollution.” and “Consumers could buy more stuff, without guilt.”

    I invite everyone to pick up a copy of Samantha McBride’s “Recycling Reconsidered” (MIT Press) to read just one intelligent treatise on the pitfalls of recycling. It is not a panacea — it uses up energy and creates waste, sometimes moreso than the material it is trying to spare.

    Further, I invite everyone to learn more about Jevons Paradox, to understand why recycling and other ‘circular’ strategies will only slow the evitable. In short, recycled paper is not permission to consume more.

    I support alot about the Circular Economy, but my money’s on what I’m calling a “Lean Economy” and a “Lean Lifestyle”. We need to be able to meet our needs on LESS, as much if not moreso than “Recirculating”. The danger of the Circular Economy is that it focuses on waste ‘management’, when we really need to use the power of design, technologies, materials and human ingenuity to ‘Prevent’ waste in the first place.

    That’s the goal of our online global community, (and as you can tell, I try not to waste a moment sharing its existence to the world :).

    I invite readers to check it out and join the lively debates and discussions taking place about practical ‘lean’ as well as ‘circular’ solutions.

  2. Susan Hubbard says

    Appreciate your vision for a zero waste world and I share it. What I think is missing from your piece is the need for and examples of the policies established by governments that promote, require or otherwise provide an incentive for product and packaging designs that at the end of their life will not result in emissions to air, water or land. That is true zero waste. Without these policies we are stuck at recycling which cannot simply be dismissed as a panacea but which, on its own, cannot get us to zero. Currently what is profitable for producers is not equal to what will really protect our health and our environment.

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