With recycling issues in the news, we are going to start hearing words like ‘circular economy’ and ‘product stewardship’ more often.
A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose). In a circular economy we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. Hence the circular aspect.
More broadly, a circular economy aims to break the nexus between economic activity and the consumption of finite resources, essentially designing waste out of the system.
It is based on three principles: Design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
It is also takes into account the economy at all scales – small and large businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally. It builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.
Consumption happens only in biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials are designed to feed back into the system to regenerate living systems like soil.
Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or (in the last resort) recycling.
Product stewardship means whoever designs, produces, sells or uses a product, takes responsibility for minimising the product's environmental impact throughout all stages of the product’s life cycle, including end-of-life management.
The greatest responsibility lies with whoever has the most ability to affect the full life cycle environmental impacts of the product. The producer is usually considered to have the main responsibility, although everyone in the supply chain does, including the consumer.
At present, it is the consumer who currently bears most for the responsibility. Although we do have some product stewardship schemes, some compulsory and some agreed by industry.