Imagine giftwrapping your trash and giving it to your children and grandchildren as presents on their birthdays and holidays. In a manner of speaking, that’s what we’re doing with most of our trash — gifting it to our kids. We simply discard things we don’t want, dump them in land and water, and leave the mess for future adults to clean up. Now try to imagine there’s no such thing as trash. When you want to discard something, anything, it’s sent to a manufacturer that will use it to make something else. That’s the circular economy.
Discarding stuff we don’t want anymore was perfectly natural for tens of thousands of years. Ancient people left behind bones, pottery shards, wooden implements and stone tools they made with their hands from materials they found in their environment. When they discarded those things they expected them to be absorbed back into Nature. They didn’t worry about making a mess because their world seemed limitless. But the world isn’t limitless anymore.
Today discarding our trash is becoming expensive, perhaps too expensive. It’s not the first time in our history that we developed a bad habit we need to break in order to survive. About the same time windows were invented, we started to throw shit out the window, literally. For hundreds of years, even in busy cities, people emptied their chamber pots into the street. It was a hard habit to break until outrage, civic organizations, scientists and entrepreneurs built public water and sewer systems. But we did it, and today we take that circular infrastructure for granted — from soil to food to waste to processing systems to soil again.
Of course, the armies of the status quo will cry out against change. But if we don’t get a grip on our trash problem we’ll be living like medieval peasants again. Fatbergs are coming after us like low budget sci-fi monsters. Blobs of non-biodegradable material, sanitary wipes and “flushable” diapers, glued together with grease and cooking oil, are clogging our plumbing and sewer systems, trying to ooze back into our homes. We’ve even trashed outer space. One of the first industries being developed between Earth and the moon is trash pick-up for all the junk we’ve left floating out there among the stars. If outer space becomes as congested as our oceans, it’ll be raining Greek yogurt containers and beer cans.
The circular economy is a way to use the Earth more efficiently. If it sounds crazy to you, imagine telling medieval peasants to replace their chamber pots with storage tanks and underground pipes that carry fresh water and waste water in and out of their homes in separate systems. They would think you’re nuts. Why would they replace a simple bucket they dump out the window with something so complicated? And yet, here we are. The future is complicated, but somehow it arrives. To push it along, reconsider your stuff and start thinking in circles.