What is the Circular Economy?
January 11, 2023
January 11, 2023
The circular economy describes an economy where materials are used and reused, rather than used and discarded. By creating a product lifecycle that is a closed loop, our resource use can become more environmentally sustainable.
Products that fit into the circular economy are designed to be reused. When a product is reusable, it keeps the raw materials that were used to make it out of the waste stream and out of the environment. It also helps to reduce the demand for new resources to be harvested, allowing renewable resources to regenerate and helping to decrease overall resource consumption.
Some common examples of products that fit this description include reusable water bottles and straws. By using straws and beverage containers that are meant to be cleaned and reused, more disposable bottles and straws are kept out of the waste stream and a single product can replace many over the course of its useful life. Another common example is the reusable shopping bag. Instead of relying on single-use bags, shoppers bring their own with them that can last many trips to and from the grocery store.
Another feature of the circular economy is the use of recyclable and recycled materials. After reusing items, eventually most will reach the end of their useful life. Instead of disposing them in a landfill or incinerator, recycling breaks them down into component materials that can be used to make a brand-new product. Common examples of products made from recycled materials include aluminum beverage cans, recycled PET bottles, newspapers, paper packaging, and glass containers.
When products are not recycled, what happens to them? Ideally, they can break down and be absorbed back into the environment without causing damage. Using natural materials where possible is one way to ensure that products can break down without causing environmental harm. Some good examples of sustainable, biodegradable materials can be found in mushroom packaging (mycelium), bamboo products, and Ranpak paper.
Paper comes from trees, which are a renewable resource. Trees harvested from sustainably managed forest land can regrow without harming natural land. Organizations like the FSC® set standards which define what forest products can be considered sustainably harvested, which further helps to identify renewable products. These standards are designed with consideration for both wildlife and local communities. Ensuring that our paper is responsibly sourced from sustainable managed forest land is a key part of our ESG journey.
Learn what ESG means and why it matters for packaging
Paper used for packaging typically has a short active life, protecting consumer or industrial goods being shipped before being ready for disposal. Ranpak paper can be reused by consumers for packaging their own items, or easily recycled within curbside recycling bins. Paper enjoys a high rate of recycling, meaning that it is likely that Ranpak products will become new paper products after they are used.
Not all packaging materials are recycled, and recycled fibers will eventually no longer be suitable for continued use. At the very end of the paper lifecycle, as an organic material paper can naturally biodegrade, breaking down and returning to the soil. This final decomposition closes the product loop, allowing Ranpak paper to be a truly circular product in every sense of the word.
To explain why we need the circular economy, it helps to define the system that this concept is meant to replace. A linear economy is a system where raw materials are harvested at the start of the product lifecycle and at the end of that lifecycle they are discarded. For example, oil is extracted and made into plastic film. That film wraps a product, then winds up in the trash. After this, the cycle starts again. Within a linear economy, value creation can only be sustained by using more and more raw materials. When those raw materials include environmentally harmful oil and gas, as is the case with plastic, additional damage can be done to the environment.
Another hallmark of a linear economy is that products are thrown out once reach the end of their useful life. The materials that they are made of no longer meaningfully contribute to the economy and are neither reused nor recycled, ending up in landfills.
Fossil fuel extraction continues to power a global plastic industry that has seen microplastic pollution expand to every environment on earth. This linear economy status-quo is not sustainable, and more responsible systems are needed to avoid overwhelming our environment and natural resources.
Learn more about how paper can replace plastic in packaging
The circular economy proposes an alternative. Renewable resources and recycled materials are used, and then reused, creating a closed loop that helps avoid environmental damage. When these resources cannot be reclaimed into production, they should be able to biodegrade safely and naturally. Thanks to an efficient use of resources, the circular economy can help enable sustainable consumption.
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