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Circular Economy

Illustration of circular economy showing product and material flow on white background with arrows. Product life cycle. Natural resources are taken to manufacturing. After usage the maximum amount of resources are recovered with as little as possible leaving the loop as residual waste.

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is an economic concept of social and environmental production and consumption that aims to build a sustainable society by optimising the use of natural resources and energy and minimising waste.

The circular economy is based on 7 fundamental principles: 1) sustainable procurement of resources, 2) ecological design, 3) industrial ecology, 4) the economy of functionality, 5) responsible consumption, 6) extension of the lifespan of products and resources, and 7) improvement of waste prevention, management and recycling.

Differences between a linear and circular economy.

Where a linear economy involves transforming natural resources and energy into products for consumption, which are ultimately disposed of, a circular economy aims to keep products, equipment, and infrastructure in use for longer, preserving natural resources, minimising waste, and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is known as a regenerative approach, where waste materials and energy are used for other processes: either a component or recovered resource for another industrial process.

Image illustrating the linear economy.  Taking natural resources, turning them into items for consumption, and ultimately disposing of those items.

Stages of the circular economy.

Acquisition of raw materials. Striving to use recycled materials, environmentally-friendly alternatives, the use of renewables, and when the extraction of natural resources is required, maximising its efficiency and mitigating the impacts of human activity on the environment.

Design of products and services. The development of new, alternative and innovative products and services that embrace the concept of circularity. Designing products that are energy-efficient, built to last, repairable, and recyclable.

Production and manufacturing. The reuse and incorporation of recycled materials in the production and manufacturing processes promotes circularity in the value chain and reduces natural resource and energy demands. The production of more efficient and good quality products with increased lifespan and maintainability increases the positive impact as well as its life span.

Distribution. Optimising transport and delivery reduces consumption of raw materials. Promotion of repair and reconditioning activities to extend the useful life of vehicles. Encouraging the use of local trade reduce the carbon footprint.

Consumption, use, reuse, and repair. Buying only what is needed and reducing consumption. Avoiding the unnecessary production and disposal of products and services by extending their lifespan. Hiring or leasing products as needed rather than purchasing them. Repairing products to prevent them from moving to the next stage in the cycle. Reusing items such as repurposing and upcycling to give them a new lease of life and prevent waste.

Collection and recycling. The final stage in the cycle. The aim at this point is to return as much of the resources in products and services as possible to the beginning of the cycle and to minimise the residual waste leaving it. For this to happen recycling is crucial, both at a structural and personal level.

How you can play a role in the transition to a circular economy.

We have all heard of the 3 R’s of sustainability – REDUCE, REUSE & RECYCLE, but there is much more that we can do to play our part in making the change to a truly circular economy.

Many of us see recycling as the solution to keeping resources in circulation and waste out of our landfills, and although it is an extremely important part of the circular economy there are many things that we should consider before the product lifecycle reaches the recycling stage.

For us, the concept of sustainability starts long before products or items are purchased. It involves thinking about our relationship with nature, with resources, and giving consideration to the impact that our consumption has on the planet. Keeping products, items, services and resources in circulation for as long as possible is critical to this concept. This necessitates a mentality shift away from a throwaway society to an earlier time in our history when the scarcity of resources made them more valuable, and appreciated.

Take a look at the 7 R’s of Sustainability to see how this circular approach to sustainability works.

Illustration showing the 7 R's of Sustainability.  1) Rethink 2) Refuse  3) Reduce  4) Repair  5) Repurpose and Reuse  6) Recycle  7) Recover
Woman hand holdging box garbage for recycle

Recycling

In Northern Ireland we recycle over 50% of our household waste each year.

We have made great strides in the amount of household waste recycled, increasing the percentage from 30% in 2008/09 to over 50% in 2018/19. But there is still more that we can do.

Check out our Recycling page for inspiration on how to take your recycling to the next level, including information on local Household Waste Recycling Centres, what items can and can’t be recycled, and how to recycle items not collected by local councils.

Tool box with repair, upcycle, mend stencil text surrounded by repair tools on bench, consumer activism to repair household items to reduce waste and support a sustainable lifestyle.

Repair & Reuse

Repairing items extends their lifespan and keeps them in circulation for longer, preventing unnecessary waste, reducing demand for resources, and can often save you money.

The reuse of items is a fundamental principle of the circular economy. Reusing and repurposing items gives them a new lease of life, extends their lifespan, and delays the product being turned into waste for as long as possible.

Take a look at our Repair and Reuse page for information on how you can keep products in circulation for longer.

Picture of home composter.

Recover

The final ‘R’ in the circular economy is ‘Recover’. This means extracting every last bit of value from resources that you can from a product after it has passed through all of the previous stages in the loop.

For many of us at home the best way to do this is through composting our kitchen and garden waste, turning it into rich fertiliser for our plants and flowerbeds.

Check out our composting page for hints and tips on how to compost at home.


Useful links

Take action today!

We hope, you’ll share our passion for the environment and want to do something to give the planet a helping hand yourself. We want to inspire you to get curious about and get involved with actions that will be good for nature, our local habitats and species, for ourselves and ultimately for our planet.

Get involved