The Circular Economy

The Circular Economy is a production and consumption system where products and packaging are designed and stewarded for the continuous reuse of materials and energy.

Increasingly, government, industry and civil society are feather_cradle_to_cradle_designcoming to embrace the concept of a circular economy where products and packaging are designed with safe, sustainable materials, manufactured with renewable energy and stewarded rather than wasted when consumers are finished with them. Design, industrial processes and collection infrastructure are harmonized to preserve material quality and value through reusing or recycling products and packaging as either biological nutrients (clean bio-based materials which can be composted or anaerobically digested) or technical nutrients (metals, plastics, etc.) to be reused or recycled as manufacturing inputs for new products. This is often referred to as cradle-to-cradle design. Cradle-to-Cradle design and circular economy initiatives stipulate that products should be designed without the use of toxic chemicals, and that industrial facilities should be redesigned to optimize water use, eliminate pollution and be powered by renewable energy.

Cradle-to-Cradle Design

Originally coined by the Swiss architect, William Stahel, the term “cradle-to-cradle” came into popular discourse from a visionary book of the same title by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, an architect and chemist, respectively.

cactus_green designCradle-to-Cradle is the antidote to the one-way, “cradle to grave” manufacturing model that dates to the Industrial Revolution and casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. The design principle makes natural processes the model for production and consumption. Products should be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new-either as “biological nutrients” that safely re-enter the environment or as “technical nutrients” that circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, without being “downcycled” into low-grade uses (as most “recyclables” now are).

According to McDonough and Braungart, “Cradle-to-Cradle reframes design as a beneficial, regenerative force – one that seeks to create ecological footprints to delight in, not lament. It expands the definition of design quality to include positive effects on economic, ecological, and social health.”

Cradle to Cradle Principles

  • Material Health: Value materials as nutrients for safe, continuous cycling
  • Material Reutilization: Maintain continuous flows of biological and technical nutrients
  • Renewable Energy: Power all operations with 100% renewable energy
  • Water Stewardship: Regard water as a precious resource
  • Social Fairness: Celebrate all people and natural systems

Extended Producer Responsibility and the Circular Economy

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a policy approach that requires those who design and sell products to have a plan for how the products will be collected for recycling into new products as a condition for sale. Some EPR laws have resulted in better designed products, with fewer toxic components, and designed for reuse and recycling. When companies have to plan for collecting and recycling their products, it creates an incentive to design less toxic, more recyclable products.

By developing and promoting policies that make consumer goods companies responsible for the environmental impacts of their products, UPSTREAM is working to make Cradle-to-Cradle design the standard for all products and packaging – building the Circular Economy along the way.