Circular Economies: A Primer

One of the reasons we choose to homestead is to lessen our impact on the earth and live more sustainably. A big part of that for us is being conscious consumers and trying to participate in what’s called circular economies. Circular economies are closely related to the permaculture concept “there is no such thing as waste, only misused resources”. The idea centers around trying to give things a second life, eliminating things we don’t need, fixing things instead of replacing them, and making things instead of buying them. 

Embrace the 6 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, & Recycle. 

Diagram explaining linear, recycling, and circular economies

Refuse

Although this is pretty new for anyone just tuning in to the green side of things I feel like this is the easiest of the bunch. Refusing to accept those free promotional t-shirts that you won’t ever wear or cheap sunglasses that you don’t really need is easy. It doesn’t take planning or extraordinary effort and it makes a big difference in the amount of “junk” that you accumulate and then unceremoniously throw in the trash. It also lessens the demand for items that are often mass-produced cheaply with underpaid labor in less than safe working environments. That doesn’t even think about the pollution, embodied energy, or potential toxins in these items. 

Try refusing: extra condiments, napkins, junk mail, promotional swag you won’t use, and to-go utensils

Reduce

This one in circular economies takes a little effort and some thought. Sometimes we aren’t ready to give up something in our lives that is a convenience or a guilty pleasure, but we still want to make a change towards sustainability. Maybe we drink 3 bottles of kombucha (or sodas, or coffee) when we could just drink one. Perhaps we can make it ourselves at home or find a version of our favorite snack that isn’t individually wrapped. Maybe we’re taking showers a little hotter or longer than we need to. Chances are, there is a lot of room to improve.

Try Reducing

  •  Energy use: turn your hot water heater down to 120 F, adjust your thermostat up 2 from your normal in the summer and down 2 from your normal in the winter
  • Packaging: make it yourself, buy in bulk, use beeswax wraps instead of plastic storage bags

Reuse

Ahh, this one is familiar. Most of us have that stash of plastic grocery bags under the sink to use as trash bags, old takeout and margarine containers as plastic storage bins, or old jars that double as drinking glasses. But most of us woefully limit ourselves to only reusing a few things in the kitchen. 

Try Reusing: cut up socks or t-shirts instead of paper towels to clean with, bread bag twist ties to organize cords, and cooled vegetable cooking water to water plants

Repurpose

This aspect of circular economies is also known as upcycling. There is a lot of overlap with reuse for this category, and quite a bit of imagination. That bent out of shape spoon may become a ring, and you can etch that broken butter knife a garden marker. You can make your old jeans into a grow bag for potatoes for a few seasons. You can create a human-powered clothes washer or energy generator out of rusty bicycles. That worn-out garden hose can be made into an outdoor mat for dirty boots. You can create garden art or planting containers out of painted tires. And of course, the 1,001 ways to repurpose pallets.

If you’re stuck and not quite sure what to do with something, ask a kid. They aren’t boxed in by our learned “society rules” and they look at the world differently than adults, so they have interesting suggestions.  Obviously do this within reason. Don’t ask a kid for advice on something that is dangerous or toxic and dispose of whatever that is properly!

Try: using fabric scraps to make rag rugs or chipped and cracked cups as a pencil holder or succulent container

Repair

This is probably the most daunting of the bunch and arguably the most important in circular economies. Many of us grew up in a throw-away culture, and because of this never learned how to fix things. Why learn when you could just buy a replacement?

That type of thinking makes us forget we live on a planet with limited resources and that throwing something in the trash is away. The truth is there is no “away”. Trash doesn’t magically disappear when it’s picked up by the garbage truck. It goes to a landfill, some of which are responsible for incredible amounts of pollution that have caused millions of dollars in clean up called superfund sites. If you live in the U.S. there may be one or several near you!

Homesteading has really brought this category into sharp relief for us. It has taught me to know my limits and what I need to reskill. But it has also taught me I am significantly more capable of things than I originally thought. 

Try: sewing on a button that fell off, patches for rips in your clothes.

Recycle

Again, this one is pretty familiar, but did you know recycling has major limits? It may use less energy than making something new, but some items, like certain plastics, are only recyclable once. Many electronics are inefficiently recycled if they are recycled at all. Glass, supposedly the best option for infinitely recyclable items, is no longer accepted in most major cities because it is more expensive to recycle it than to make it new! That’s why this is listed as the last category because we want to exhaust every other avenue before we get here.

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