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In with the old: Neighborhoods across the world serve as models for a larger reuse movement

Person repairing wheel in bike shop
Dusan Petkovic

This article is part of our Paradigm Shift series, produced by nonprofit PYXERA Global, on the diverse solutions driving the transition to a circular economy. See the full collection of stories and upcoming webinars with the authors here.

We all like shiny, new objects. The cool factor. The next best thing. For some, that’s the appeal of circularity: a buzzworthy economic model that reimagines not just products and services, but the entire value chain and the underlying rules of engagement. It’s a fresh take on natural capitalism, industrial ecology, the performance economy, and a number of other sustainability frameworks from over the years, each of which has offered a new interpretation of the basic idea that the economic viability and environmental footprint of our industrial systems can — and must — go hand in hand. Indeed, they are inextricably linked.

We’re in the early days of imagining a circular economy, and a growing number of the world’s largest companies are adopting this framework to help shape environmental strategies and develop new, scalable circular products and services. New business models, new materials, new partnerships, new value propositions — a new economy at large. Across the board, the rhetoric and proof points surrounding the circular economy’s expansion and maturation focus largely on the new.

But here’s the problem: an over-emphasis on "new" and "scalable solutions" has, at best, overlooked, and at worst, co-opted and overwritten some of the more humble, community-based examples of effective circularity that are already thriving.

Across the board, the rhetoric and proof points surrounding the circular economy’s expansion and maturation focus largely on the new.

In neighborhoods across cities around the world, the revival and evolution of the reuse movement assumes an important role in driving critical behavior change for consumers and their communities. Before we reinvent the wheel and fully embrace markedly modern circular solutions, let’s not disregard what’s already working.

A step up from knocking on a neighbor’s door for a cup of sugar, "Buy Nothing" groups on Facebook allow community members to do just that. This localized goods distribution network creates a neighborhood-based gifting economy. Members can post items they no longer need, or request goods they’re looking for, and neighbors will chime in with asks or offers — all without the exchange of any money. It’s a simple approach to keeping usable items in play, no matter how specific.

In my local group, I’ve acquired house plants, patio furniture and cooking tools, and gifted an entire bed set, picture frames and art supplies. During the week I'm writing this, I’ve seen the successful exchange of a nursing pillow, seven feet of decorative black chain, Star Wars cookie cutters and even an opened box of granola (they didn’t like the taste), among dozens of other items that have found a new home.

While the process involves a bit more friction than tossing an item into the garbage, members of "Buy Nothing" groups and users of similar platforms such as Nextdoor, Freecycle or the free section of Craigslist receive a less-obvious benefit as well: a stronger sense of community, or maybe just a new acquaintance. As more modern and flashy solutions emerge to modernize the redistribution of localized goods, many of the more high-tech apps have designed out the basic element of human connectedness, despite framing themselves as part of the "sharing economy."

Another example of a successful, community-based circular system is the library of things, a model that’s popping up in cities from London to Toronto. In my hometown of Berkeley, California, the popular Tool Lending Library was established in the 1970s as an offshoot of the city’s public library system. The library allows residents to check out anything from table saws to pasta makers, just as you would a book. And when the average power drill is used for just a few minutes a year, the opportunity to increase product use and decrease unnecessary consumption is obvious.

Establishing an effective circular economy will rely on keeping what works, designing out what doesn’t and being creative to fill in the gaps.

There are of course also enduring professions such as the local cobbler or seamstress, as well as newer "Repair Cafés" popping up to help fix, mend and extend the useful life of perfectly good products, from boots to coats to toasters. Some companies are finding success in mimicking these models for their own products, such as Apple’s Genius Bar and Best Buy’s Geek Squad for electronics and Levi’s Tailor Shops for denim.

Certainly nothing's wrong with updating the old and reimagining the successes of a bygone era for the modern consumer. Just look at Loop, the Terracycle spin-off that’s piloting reusable packaging at scale in partnership with some of the world’s leading brands. Hitching its marketing scheme to the "milkman model," Loop is taking the environmental benefits of durable packaging and adapting an old model to the modern consumer.

Establishing an effective circular economy will rely on keeping what works, designing out what doesn’t and being creative to fill in the gaps. It will take imagination, ingenuity and hard work. The fact is, our current, linear economy is built on thousands of innovations refined over decades, many of which are worth keeping — or, in some cases, resurrecting. Focusing only on the newest ideas and innovations could get us back where we started: an unsustainable world needing to return to basics.

And that would be an unfortunate circle to close.

To learn more from the leaders of the circular economy transition, visit PYXERA Global.

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