circular economy sustainability waste

Five ways to close the loop

One of the key aspects of the circular economy is to recapture materials as things come to the end of the lifespan. Whether we’re talking about a glass bottle, a pair of jeans or a mobile phone handset, there is a value to the materials that is lost if the item just ends up in landfill. With increasing pressure on natural resources as the world’s population grows and consumes more, it’s vital that we recapture and reuse those materials wherever we can. It also happens to be a major business opportunity.

Because most of us have to think about it on a weekly basis, the process that most readily comes to mind is recycling. But that’s not the only way to put materials back into use, and nor is it the best. There are five main ways to recapture value from materials at the end of a product’s initial usage.

  1. Reuse – this is the most direct and immediate way to put something back into service, with no loss in use value. I’m wearing a ‘new’ pair of secondhand jeans today, for example. (We were in St Albans yesterday, where you get a higher class of charity shop). A lot of reuse is informal, but a bottle deposit scheme is a more organised form.
  2. Remanufacture – while secondhand goods are sometimes refurbished, they’re never the same as new.  Remanufacturing goes much further and aims to return a product to its original specification so that there’s no discernable difference between a remanufactured item and a new one. Ink cartridges are the the main product where we’re likely to encounter the process, and a key part of the circular economy is to design more products with this in mind from the start.
  3. Cascade – a less familiar term, cascading refers to reusing something for a lower value purpose. That old bedsheet that you keep to use as a dustsheet when you’re decorating? That’s cascading. In business, it’s common with IT equipment. At my own workplace we tend to buy high-spec laptops for media production, and then cascade them to departments that don’t need as much processing power when we upgrade.
  4. Recycle – Some things can be recycled almost endlessly, such as steel. Other things, such as paper or mixed plastics, tend to degrade. Either way, recycling usually involves shredding, melting down, or otherwise completely destroying the original object in order to reuse the materials. It captures materials, but its an intensive process.
  5. Recover – this is salvaging a product’s materials for a one-off, basic purpose. Burning waste for heat or energy generation is one example. Some things that are collected as recycling are technically recovered  – such as green bottles. There’s little demand for green glass in Britain, since it’s mainly used by wine-makers. Green glass here is usually ground up and used for road building as ‘glassphalt’.

In Britain we’ve made big strides in recycling in recent decades, but it’s towards the bottom of the circularity hierarchy here. Reuse is alive and well, thriving through Ebay and the like. Remanufacturing is perhaps the big one that we’re missing. According to the Next Manufacturing Revolution report, just 1% of our manufacturing output would qualify, and there are major opportunities. I might write some more about that in future.


  1. Remanufacture (or at least major refurbishment) of cars ought to be a priority, as several tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted for every new ‘eco’ car produced. fettling and reusing one would emit much less. The problem of course is image, snobbery or keeping up with the Jones. There will be a major attitude change required, though personal plates help to disguise the age of a vehicle.

  2. You are absolutely right re: remanufacturing. I draw your attention to our forthcoming report “Triple Win: the Social, Economic and Environmental Case for Remanufacturing”, which will set out a series of recommendations to Government to develop this sector. It will be launched in parliament on the 8th December.

    Incidentally, the author the Next Manufacturing Revolution, Dr Greg Lavery, was on the steering group of the Triple Win inquiry, and will be at the launch of the report.

  3. Makes sense. By the way, trainers can be repaired if the soles are not worn all the way through, so check and take them for repair in time.

  4. I tend to split the description of recycling into “Recycling” vs. William McDonough’s “Upcycling.” If a resource stream can take a material back to its pliable state and expand its options of uses (aluminum, steel, glass) then it’s going back UP the supply chain; upcycling. If a resource stream is being degraded and repurposed while only prolonging its journey towards being trash (plastic bottles into a fleece); recycling.

    I’ve found some people break recycling equally into Upcycling or Downcycling as well.

    1. Yes, that’s a useful distinction within recycling, and it was McDonough that first switched me on to that too. Much of what I put out as mixed recycling for my council to take away is downcycling, unfortunately.

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