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Paradigm Shift: Conceptualizing the circular economy

There’s more to a circular economy than recycling; it’s a much bigger idea, and much more fundamental.

 Roundabout in the middle of a forest in Belgium.

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.

Paradigm shift (n): a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.

In our natural world, all physical matter revolves in an infinite cycle of restoration and regeneration. There is no waste in biological systems, only secondary resources. It therefore makes sense that our global economy — a system we recognize as a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment — should be harmonious with its larger ecological system, yet this is not the case. Our linear, take-make-waste platform, which may have been practical when resource scarcity was a distant concern, requires a paradigm shift. Given that there are no good choices in a bad system, the transition to alignment — to a circular economy — must happen now.

The planet is at an inflection point. Every day we hear about new symptoms of our fracturing environmental system, warning us of our perilous path. This new reality never has been more evident as we weather COVID-19 and witness the scale of our interconnectedness and the power of collective decision-making toward a common goal. It’s not possible to know what the future looks like if this systems breakdown continues. However, recognizing the limits of our understanding helps us avoid hubris. The first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem, followed by focusing our energy with concerted action through partnerships involving the public, private and social sectors. A starting point may be to acknowledge the fallacy that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is the path to prosperity. As a mindset it is long outdated.

There are no good choices in a bad system.

We don’t need to find the right answers all at once. But it’s important to ask the right questions; how can we stop extracting raw materials and design out waste? And how might we keep materials in circulation, material already in the economy, to avoid consumption at the expense of our natural resources? Finally, how do we get to a state where our economic activity regenerates our natural systems?

Despite the monumental challenges we face, there are awe-inspiring opportunities to correct course, and we should be energized by the prospect. Entrepreneurship is entering its golden age. Technological breakthroughs are hitting their stride at the right time to give humanity the boost it needs. The groundswell of support from consumers, employees, and now investors demanding change promises to disrupt industry and create circular supply chains. Growing public awareness and activism also promises we’ll elect public leaders who are serious in their commitments to a more sustainable future, and willing to make necessary decisions for the sake of future generations.

For those less familiar with the breadth of the transition, there’s more to a circular economy than recycling; it’s a much bigger idea, and much more fundamental. It’s about how we think, behave and consume. It’s about equitable distribution of resources to avoid straining critical ecosystems and careful attention to the regenerative capacity of nature when we liquidate green capital to build and power our cities. This is a complex global challenge, and while it can be tempting to search for a simple panacea, the best response is to design and build a suite of interdependent solutions.

This is the good news — we designed our existing economies, so nothing is stopping us from designing the economy of the future. We are only limited by our imagination and collective determination.

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

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