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What is the circular economy?

The circular economy refers to a systemic approach to longer and more efficient use of resources and thus to avoidance of waste and pollution. Resources are kept in the material cycle for as long as possible with the highest possible value. This means that fewer primary raw materials are consumed, and the more efficient production processes lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The approach of the circular economy is not the same as that of recycling. A distinction is drawn between the technical and the biological cycles.

Linear economy versus circular economy 

 

In today’s economic system, linear processes predominate. In this linear economy – also known as a throwaway society – raw materials are mined, and products are manufactured, sold, consumed and thrown away. This approach is resource-intensive and produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases and waste. The circular economy, meanwhile, is a regenerative model, in which the life cycle of products is extended through the reprocessing, re-use, repair and recycling of existing materials and resources for as long as possible. The circular economy is therefore a systemic approach to tackling global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, waste and pollution. 

 

How does the circular economy work? 

 

The material flow in the economy can be divided into two main cycles: the technical and the biological cycles. In the technical cycle, products are kept within the circular economy through reuse, repair, reprocessing and recycling. This way, the materials remain in use and do not become waste. The prerequisite for this is a design that is modular and easy to repair and disassemble. In the biological cycle, the nutrients from biodegradable materials can be channelled back into the earth through processes such as composting or fermentation. This way, the soil can regenerate and the cycle begins anew. 

 

 

How does the circular economy contribute to climate protection? 

 

The mining and processing of finite raw materials in industry generates large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions every year. With a holistic approach like the circular economy, the life cycle assessment of a product is taken into account from the outset, meaning its components are designed so that the product can remain in the cycle for as long as possible (eco-design). This means fewer primary raw materials are consumed and this, together with energy efficient production processes, leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The crucial thing here is that the product is developed and manufactured according to eco-design principles. 

 

What is the difference between recycling and the circular economy?  

 

In the circular economy, industrial production processes are oriented towards keeping raw materials in use for as long as possible and with the highest possible value. In an ideal case, a product with a circular design produces no waste, because all of the components can be recycled endlessly. Alternative products that flow into a recycling process are generally not designed so that they can be broken down into individual, recyclable components. The product has to be reprocessed as a whole, which frequently involves energy-intensive measures (for example the rinsing and drying of reusable glass bottles). Recycling alone is therefore not enough to make the economy more sustainable. To tackle the global challenges of climate change and environmental pollution, it takes a variety of holistically conceived initiatives – just like the circular economy. 

 

Sources 

 

Circular economy (admin.ch) 

What is a circular economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundation 

Circular economy (circularhub.ch) 

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