Going Around in Circles… Trapped by Consumerism and Freed by the Circular Economy

This blog comes to you in two parts: the frustration of trying to make sustainable purchases, and how we need to work towards a circular economy.

Lately, I have found that my inner monologue at the grocery store has been spiraling out of control. Say I have to pick up some dish soap. The conversation with myself might go something like this:

Okay, looks like my choices are a vaguely “all natural” dish soap which probably isn’t biodegradable or a more expensive brand that has simple ingredients but might be less effective at cleaning my dishes. Maybe I should go online and order some cheaper, more ethical dish soap. But then more energy will be used to deliver the soap to my house which will defeat the purpose of buying a more sustainable brand… Wait, maybe I should just go with the soap that uses the least plastic packaging. But which is better, a little bit of shrink wrap or a big recyclable plastic bottle?

When shopping for new shoes:

Okay, I know that real leather has high carbon cost because it comes from animals, but vegan leather is made of plastic, which will contribute to our global plastic problem. I’m not spending $125 on a pair of flats made from recycled plastic (no matter how much I’m entranced by Rothy’s), so there’s no way to win!

I feel like when I try to be a conscientious consumer and support sustainable companies, I’m always faced with trade-offs. Sure, I can give up cow’s milk for almond milk, but almond farms consume so much water that some argue it is more harmful to the ecosystem than a carbon-intensive product like cow’s milk. And the zero-waste/eco-friendly community is full of conflicting claims like this: recycled polyester is the least energy and resource-intensive fabric, but that doesn’t account for the fact that wearing and washing any polyester can add microfibers to the ocean.

So, what can individual consumers do? Give up and know that one extra filet mignon or polyester shirt is a tiny drop in the bucket and let it go? Or take a stand for what you believe in, even if you know it won’t bring the change you hope for?

I certainly don’t have the answers. Technically, the most sustainable thing to do would be to never buy anything new. What I do know is that in a capitalist society, you vote with your wallet. So on top of actually calling/writing your representatives in government and expressing your concerns, financially supporting companies with sustainable values is the most impactful thing you can do.

Every American uses a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, which means that as an American, your sustainable choices have a big positive impact on the world.

Despite this, even the most dedicated optimist must admit that there are limits to how impactful individual choices can be.  To begin building a sustainable society, we will need to hold corporations accountable and make sure that we are talking and working towards sustainability and environmental conservation at all times. Hopefully, we can set a new, more productive kind of circle in motion…

The Circular Economy

The idea of a circular economy can be explained with some familiar words: reduce, reuse, recycle (in order of importance!). In our current linear economy, we create products from our natural resources, use them, and then dispose of them. According to the EPA, we are generating more waste than ever, and less than half is being recycled in any form. We are sinking a lot of energy into disposing of products properly and that energy yields no benefit.

In a circular economy, we would use that energy to reuse or recycle waste and keep our resources in a closed loop. This would save energy, prevent deforestation, reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, and stop all sorts of waste from entering the ecosystem.

Those who promote the idea of a circular economy envision a world where products are built to last and single-use items are not created at all. Anything that cannot be reused should be designed so it can be recycled over and over again to minimize the virgin materials extracted from nature. Take-back programs and expanded recycling capabilities are two real-world examples that are already being used to close the loop on some of our waste.

Though it’s a very valid vision for the future, some research has pointed out the challenges and limitations that accompany the circular economy. By the nature of thermodynamics, energy is lost in the form of heat, light, etc. whenever we use energy from combustion. Materials that can be utilized by nature, often made of organic materials, can be used in cradle-to-cradle systems and designs, but sometimes efforts to eliminate waste simply put off the eventual disposal of some component in manufacturing, which can waste energy.

The circular economy doesn’t always hold one consistent scientific definition, nor does it offer solutions for individual industries. It is a concept that environmentalists created as a goal for the future, and it is a concept that holds a lot of uncertainties and possibilities. How we work towards a circular economy and make that dream a reality is still to be seen. However, we can now envision a world where we won’t have to fret (as much) over our individual choices and know that the large organizations that steward our environment and resources are using them responsibly.

Many countries and organizations around the world share a vision for a circular economy, and promote this idea within their own cultures and governments. Here are a just a few links, if you would like to read more:

The Plant Chicago


European Commission

New Zealand


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