Our products usually consist of several elements, which were made of different materials. Even a bottle of water is not just the content, but also the bottle itself, the material of which is made from natural raw materials, such as sand (glass bottles) or oil (plastic bottles). More complex products, such as electronics products, contain a variety of elements, some of which are made of very scarce naturally occurring raw materials.
We are used to discard worn or used things. However, this means that we also throw away the ingredients of products and valuable raw materials. This behavior has two major disadvantages: first, many components are not naturally degradable and thus pollute the environment for a very long time. Second, the raw materials that are included in the products we dispose of will be taken out of the raw material supply system of the economy. Hence, industry will rely on newly won raw materials for new products. Thus, the naturally occurring, but non-renewable resources are being depleted. They will no longer be available to future generations. In addition, in many cases, the industrial use of natural raw materials (primary raw materials) requires a very high energy consumption, while the reclamation (recycling) of raw materials (secondary raw material) requires significantly less.
The concept of a circular economy aims at preventing this loss of raw materials. It is based on the consideration that many raw materials can be reused several times as ingredients of products, and hence can serve as material for many products, not just one. The aim is to recycle from used goods as many of the materials contained in them, and re-supply the economy with them. This creates a cycle of raw materials.
In order to achieve the circular economy, the cradle-to-cradle concept was developed (from cradle back to cradle). It foresees that new products should be made from materials that are either biodegradable or permit a high reuse in recycled form. Thus the raw materials used will either flow back into the natural recycling chain or remain in the commodity-flow of the economy. For this purpose, the economy must switch to other raw materials than those being used today, whose properties allow frequent recycling.
And we, the citizens, have to make our contribution to this new system. We should be well-informed on which of our used goods can be recycled and where they can enter the recycling system. This will not only include the separation of household waste, though with this system at least part of packaging or food waste (compost to be used as fertilizer) can be reused. We also need to recycle different types of electronics equipment and clothing. Many countries have already established recycling systems for a variety of used goods. There are large recycling centers for special equipment and small collection containers for disposable bottles, clothing and even for cork closures from wine or champagne bottles. A brief search on the internet is usually sufficient to identify your collection spots. And if there aren’t any, isn’t it about time to ask local authorities to install them?