Circular Economy: It’s Time To Look Beyond Recycling

As much as the abandonment of the European Commission Circular Economy package has been bemoaned online and in media outlets across Europe, it’s worth noting that much of the focus of that policy document was still upon increasing rates of recycling and setting hard recycling targets. While that is not a bad thing, an over-emphasis on “recycling more” often leads to misrepresentations of what a transition to a circular economy model means and leads to a silo of thought that excludes its full scope.

Licensed under CC credit Flickr user: Scott Ableman

The circular economy is a different global economic model that decouples economic growth and development from resource constraints, keeping products, components and materials at their highest value at all times. It aims to change the global economic system. It necessitates a rethinking of the status quo.

In contrast, recycling’s main purpose is to minimise the damage of waste outputs and at times has acted as reinforcement for the current mode of economic thinking. Its focus is broadly on the actions that individuals can take (“separate out your waste”) and on doing less harm. Recycling can be done on a very large scale without having a significant impact on material usage, consumption patterns or business thinking.

Instead, the seeking of ever-greater rates of recycling implies a system where low-value, single usage materials can be cycled effectively in the long-term. That system is not achievable. The economics of recycling have only worked across a limited range of products (some plastics, some metals, paper) and even the recycling of those materials involves a loss in embedded energy and material quality.

Licensed under CC credit Flickr user: Timothy Takemoto
Licensed under CC credit Flickr user: Timothy Takemoto

As a process, recycling on its own deals with the problem at the “wrong end of the pipe” – for example 3-4% of the world’s crude oil, a non-renewable resource, goes into the production of plastics, which are then very difficult to recycle in a way that retains value. Recycling also has only limited impact on quantity of material used and neither does it optimize products for material reuse – a huge percentage of food wrappers are non recyclable because of the inseparable mixes of materials used.

Crucially, the process of recycling does not economically incentivise a better flow of materials and resources through the economy as a whole.

Of course, recycling is sometimes necessary, but it very rarely is settling for recycling the most economically beneficial action. Alternatives around designing products differently to better suits reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, or new models that assist the extended use of products, components and materials.

The circular economy is a different global economic model that decouples economic growth and development from resource constraints, keeping products, components and materials at their highest value at all times.

Renault is an example of a large business that has generated high economic value out of remanufacturing as a process. The company’s Choisy-le-Roi factory specializes in the remanufacturing and recycling of automotive parts. The factory is one of Renault’s most profitable enabling substantial savings in terms of raw materials, energy, water and chemical products. The plant is able to offer clients remanufactured parts with the same warranty as a new product, but at up to 50% cheaper and is currently processing around 6,000 tonnes of metal each year.

Neither should opportunities be too materials-centric. Splosh has saved significantly on costs on materials usage, as well as packaging waste, by altering its business model.


Splosh sells household cleaning products operating a “one time sale” business model. Instead of customers buying new bottles filled with products on a weekly basis, the company sells a “start box”, which contains bottles that can be re-used over a longer period of time. Splosh then delivers sachets, containing their product, which creates the cleaning product when mixed with warm water.

There are an ever-growing number of case studies where businesses are adopting new approaches and are applying a bigger picture mindset with the economic advantages in mind, as opposed to focusing upon damage limitation only.

Recycling may not be a “bad thing”, but moving beyond recycling is crucial part of building a global economy that can be resilient and profitable in the long-term.

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Seb Egerton-Read

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website's topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]

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