Gary Anderson Drafting the Recycle Symbol.
Wikimedia Commons

The free spirit sixties abruptly ended. That left the seventies with the challenge of how to harness some really promising ideas. 

51 years ago, in April of 1970, Earth Day was born. And with it, the other infamous three R’s: the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Triangle.

This little triangle started some good conversations and initiatives. Thanks to its efforts, today, 94 percent of Americans have access to either curbside or drop-off recycling programs.


The Shape of Sustainability

In spite of the triangle’s best efforts, we still live largely in “a linear economy.” Resources in the linear economy follow a “Take, Make, Dispose” path. Get the resources, make the products, chuck ‘em when they’re used up. Start over. The end point of the linear economy is stuff ending up in the landfill or the environment. Straight up – this doesn’t achieve the goal. 

Even if resources are caught before the landfill, there’s not an ideal re-entry point back into the stream. In a linear economy, the attention is focused on the product and its original lifespan, no matter how short.  We’ll dive into this topic more later, but for now, let’s circle back around to the alternative solution.

So, how do we change this mindset?  The alternative requires bending linear thinking and systems into a circle. It means rethinking entire processes, not just the product.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been instrumental in developing and promoting the notion of a circular economy.  Their vision is a new economic system that delivers better outcomes for people and the environment.  A circular economy begins with reusability in mind – it is hard-coded into society as well as design and manufacturing processes early on. Call it “Make, Use, Recycle.” The focus shifts to innovative systems, operations and infrastructure, not just the end user. The question, of course, is how we move towards a circular economy.

The foundation of building a new circular economy is made of 3 guiding principles:

1. Waste and pollution are design flaws.

We need to harness new materials and technology during the design phase that will ensure that waste and pollution aren’t created in the first place.

2. Keep products and materials in use.

Design in a way that makes it easier to reuse, repair or remanufacture products and/or their components to ensure they don’t end up in a landfill.

3. Take active steps to regenerate natural systems.

It’s not enough to “do not harm”, but rather, why not “do more good” to improve the environment?

These principles aim to disrupt the current linear system to make sure that recovery and repurposing of resources is part of the game plan from the outset.  The circular economy means thinking further back and further ahead of a product’s shelf life at the same time.  

The concept of a circular economy is sparking many new initiatives in the packaging industry.

We look forward to exploring these initiatives as well as other educational topics around sustainability in future installments of our blog series. 

In the meantime, we invite you to watch this webinar to learn more about some examples of designing for the circular economy, and also visit the Berry Global Plastic Sustainability Education Hub to learn more about sustainability in the world of plastics.