Linear to Circular Economy:

Promoting a Sustainable Future

By: Veronica Suarez

June 27, 2023

      Ever since the early days of this country's economy, the US has been focused on linear growth. But what does that actually mean? Well, it's a simple concept: a linear economy follows the "take, make, dispose" philosophy, whereas a circular economy embraces the idea of "make, use, recycle." The linear model became deeply ingrained in American culture during the industrial revolution and the post-World War II era of excessive spending. While it led to significant economic gains, our environment has paid a heavy price for this wasteful and unproductive approach.

Linear Vs. Circular Economy Model

     As you can see in the graphic, the linear economy assumes that resources are infinite, allowing us to take and waste without any consequences. This mindset encourages producers to extract materials without considering ecological impacts, and encourages  consumers to overuse and generate excessive waste. As the world becomes more environmentally aware, we are witnessing the consequences of these actions: accelerated climate change, resource depletion, pollution, excessive waste, social inequality, and economic vulnerability. Yes, that's right – economic vulnerability.

     Ironically, the linear economy can even negatively impact the economy itself. The reliance on scarce resources and fluctuating prices creates economic vulnerability. Rapid disruptions in the supply chain and price fluctuations can easily destabilize industries, leading to economic instability. When the supply chain is disrupted, prices rapidly increase due to supply shortages, decreased production from lacking materials and employees, delays in international trades, shifts in how and what people are buying, and factories closing down. 

      On the other hand, a circular economy offers an efficient and productive alternative. Its goal is to minimize waste, maximize resource efficiency, and create a more stable economic system. This economy operates on a closed-loop system, constantly circulating materials and resources. Instead of taking, making, and wasting, it focuses on reusing, repairing, and recycling. Not only does this approach make sense from an environmental standpoint, but it also makes economic sense.

      In a circular economy, products are designed to have longer lifespans, reducing the need for constant replacement and waste. Consequently, the demand for virgin resources is significantly reduced. This model also presents economic opportunities by fostering the development of new green industries and jobs. By reducing waste and resource consumption, the circular economy mitigates environmental degradation. It minimizes pollution, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and conserves natural resources, making it an effective tool in the fight against climate change and the preservation of biodiversity.

       The linear economy has undeniably brought progress, but its flaws have finally caught up with us, and time is running out. Alarming statistics from the Air Quality Life Index project a grim future: If we persist in our wasteful ways, we will collectively lose about 16.9 billion years of life due to air pollution-related diseases. Organizations like the WWF have also sounded the alarm, expressing deep concern about the sustainability of such a system. By 2100, we face the likely possibility of degraded coral reefs, rapidly diminishing Arctic ice, more forceful and frequent heat waves, a 170% increase in flood risks, a sea level rise of nearly two feet, and the loss of more than half of many species' habitats. The dire consequences of the linear economy loom large, threatening the well-being of billions of people and the delicate balance of our ecosystems.

      The circular economy offers an innovative alternative that promotes both economic growth and environmental well-being. Transitioning from a linear to a circular economy requires collaboration among governments, businesses, and individuals, but the benefits outweigh the challenges. Together, we can pave the way for a circular economy that respects planetary boundaries, nurtures thriving ecosystems, and ensures a better quality of life for future generations.