BLOG: In Pursuit of Circularity

Guest blog by Allyson Mitchell of Indiana Recycling Coalition 

Planet Earth is a beautiful, diverse, resilient, and amazing place to live; especially when you compare it to the other 7 giant rocks rotating around our sun. But it’s also finite; an indisputable fact that we humans don’t always seem to accept, or at least, abide by.

Since the dawn of the environmental movement in the US – kicked off by the Clean Air Act and subsequent inaugural  Earth Day 50 years ago – we’ve been leaning hard on recycling as the solution to our increasingly-wasteful habits of consumption.

But here’s the thing. Recycling was not, is not, and never can be our silver bullet for sustainable materials management. And we’ve only just begun to really accept this.

Sounds like a pretty ironic thing – for someone who works for an organization with the word “recycling” in its name – to say, doesn’t it? Yeah, I know. I’m working on that; more on that in
the postscript.

The truth is, recycling is a very useful tool and it does many good things. It captures the value of the materials that have been mined or harvested, processed and refined, formed and used, collected and sorted. It saves energy. It diverts materials from landfills and incinerators. And it makes us feel good.

But here’s the truth about recycling that gets overlooked, avoided or downplayed: it is only ONE tool that MUST be used in coordination with MANY other tools in order to be effective. It must be part of a comprehensive integrated waste management plan – a portfolio of tools and strategies – in order to provide the full potential of economic, environmental, and social benefits.

But, why can’t we just lean harder on recycling? Educate more people, slap that chasing arrows symbol on more things, and put out some more blue bins? Well, for starters, not all things we consume and use are recyclable. In fact, the vast majority of things we produce today are not recyclable – for a plethora of reasons I’m happy to explain over a hard cider. And then there’s the recyclables that don’t even get collected, or worse – get collected but are contaminated such that they cannot be recycled. And don’t even get me started on how few things are even designed to be recycled.

Well geez Allyson, that was uplifting!

Now, before you start assuming I’m a real downer at cocktail parties, I have some good news to share. There’s a lot of momentum across this planet right now to embrace the circular economy. No, that’s not a fancy term for a dizzying amusement park ride or IndyCar’s foray into cryptocurrency. It’s a concept that reimagines our relationship to materials and builds economic, natural, and social capital.

The linear ‘Take – Make – Dispose’ system, which depletes natural resources and generates waste, is deeply flawed and can be productively replaced by a restorative model in which waste does not exist as such but is only food for the next cycle. – Dame Ellen MacArthur

When you step back and really think about it from the perspective of materials management, humans don’t really need to OWN the molecules that make up our stuff; we just need to use them for some time. And then we can pass them along to be used again, whether in the same form or in a new form; whatever is the highest and best use for those molecules in that place, at that time.

If this is your first time hearing the term, the circular economy might sound like a pretty radical or unproven idea. But examples of it are already all around you. That office printer your company leases? Those carshare and bike-share programs popping up in major cities? That AirBnB you stayed in on your vacation? That’s the circular economy. Oh, and perhaps the best example of all: nature. Biomimicry, explained by Janine Benyus in a video here, is design innovation inspired by nature.

Planet Earth is pretty amazing, huh? Let’s learn from it, invest in the transition to a circular economy, and protect it – in all its beauty, diversity, and resilience. And keep recycling, too.

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Ok, so back to that whole ‘recycling’ in our name thing. If the circular economy is so great and recycling is so 1995, why do I work for an organization focused on recycling? The Indiana Recycling Coalition has been around since 1989, and was formed to educate Hoosiers about recycling and expand their access to it. That was, and still is, a very worthwhile mission. But as we envision a more prosperous future for our finite planet, our country, our state and local communities, we must recognize the limitations of recycling in a meaningful way. For us, this means expanding our focus to pursue the circular economy and its portfolio of tools and strategies – of which recycling is included within. We’re in the process of making that pivot, and changing our name will be part of that pivot. Stay tuned!

To learn more about Allyson Mitchell and IRC, listen to Episode 89.