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Three principles of the circular economy

What are the key three things you need to know about the circular economy?

All systems have “rules” around which they evolve, and all parts of the system work within these. The circular economy relies on three principles, each underpinned by design:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

Let’s look at them in turn.


So much of the waste created today can be traced back to decisions made in the design stage. Rather than treating the symptoms of pollution and finding ways to deal with waste once it’s already been generated, we need to design products and processes so that waste and pollution aren’t created in the first place.

EXAMPLE: The people at Ecovative Design found a way to grow packaging using mycelium to bind agricultural by-product together. It is lightweight, protective, and completely compostable. Rather than have our system deal with single-use plastics or polystyrene, Ecovative’s solution eliminates that inevitable waste and replaces it with something that can actually nourish the soil.


What if we designed a system that uses things rather than uses them up? A circular economy favours activities that preserve value in the form of energy, labour and materials. This means designing for durability, modularity, repair, reuse, remanufacturing and, as a last resort, recycling. It enables us to keep products, components and materials circulating in the economy for longer, reducing the reliance on new and finite materials and energy.

EXAMPLE: MUD Jeans created fully circular jeans made of up to 40% post-consumer recycled cotton derived from discarded jeans. Offered on a subscription model, repairs are free and users can swap for a new pair of jeans, adapting to size, style and price. Customers have access to safe and circular materials and more flexibility, and MUD jeans have a more predictable material supply chain and a lower environmental impact.


To regenerate is to give more than you take with an overall positive effect on the biosphere. This is the idea of not just doing less bad but doing good. By doing so, we can enhance natural systems and draw down carbon, both of which build resilience in the long-term. While not all actions within the circular economy will regenerate natural systems, the overall effect of our actions should be to do so.

EXAMPLE: Winona Farm in Australia is managed in such a way that the ground is never bare, which protects the soil from erosion and reduces water loss. They also eliminate ploughing and the use of herbicides, which create further systemic benefits such as eliminating both downstream flooding and waterway pollution. The land is regenerated, biodiversity is increased, and they see a huge increase in sequestered carbon.

Finally, you will have noticed that the principles are high level and their application may differ depending on the environmental, economic and social context. What works in a tropical rainforest may not be applicable in the Scottish highlands… Furthermore, you might find that some case studies of the circular economy in action do not exemplify all three principles. The circular economy cannot be achieved by one firm making one change. Rather it is the combination of effects by firms and governments that will get us there. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, after all.

Do you have an example of the circular economy which you can share with the group? What makes it circular?

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Circular Economy: The Big Idea

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