CIRCULARITY – It is more than just recycling on Steroids

Now that so many of us are required to work remotely and stay home more than we are used to, we are generating more waste and our overflowing recycling bins and garbage toters are a visible sign that it is time to consider Circularity.

What is this concept of Circularity?

Circularity – short for “the Circular Economy”  is “ based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”  – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A circular economy builds and rebuilds overall system health.

In the technical cycles, products are recovered and restored or remanufactured through the replacement of worn-out components.  If not possible, the materials are re-used or used to make another product; and at the last resort, recycled.

In the biological cycles, materials are designed to feedback into the system through composting or anaerobic digestion.  The goal is to regenerate living systems, like soil, and provide renewable resources that can be fed back into the economy.

Let’s use an example of a liquid hand soap pump dispenser

Today, if you can find it, you can purchase a single-use plastic hand soap dispenser, a multi-pack, or a larger refill bottle of liquid hand soap. Each has packaging that must be disposed of through recycling, diversion to a waste to energy (WTE) facility, or disposal at a landfill.

Current State: You purchase the refill for your hand pump dispenser. At that point, the refill bottle can be recycled, diverted to a WTE facility, or thrown away.   Eventually, the plastic hand pump dispenser may stop working and needs to be replaced.

When the plastic is recycled, a certain percentage of the plastic will return to the economic system for a time, but usually, it is downcycled into a product that may also be single-use or into another product that may be downcycled again. No matter the timeframe, that plastic will eventually be landfilled or diverted to a WTE facility, taking its value out of the economic system.

Liquid hand soap manufacturers have taken some steps toward sustainability, offering refill bottles or even offering returnable bottles.

<<<(Fun Fact: According to US EPA data about 8% of all plastic is recycled in the US.)>>>

In a circularity system: Circularity is about how the product is designed, packaged, distributed, and used. If we apply circular thinking to our example, the manufacturer would design out the waste, save cost and reinvigorate the circular economic system.

Key Insights:

  • Liquid hand soap is mostly water.
  • Much of the cost of packaging and shipping is related to the bulk of the dispensers, the volume and weight of the water in the soap.
  • A small percentage of single-use plastic is returned to the system through recycling.

Scenario 2, A Better Way:  The manufacturer reformulates the product into a dry powder, packaging it in a starch-based dissolvable pod, and ships it in a bulk knock-down returnable package.

The consumer receives the pod and adds it to a durable stainless steel or glass pump bottle, to which they add water and shake it up.  Since the product was re-formulated, the soap mixes well with the water and acts just like their past soaps.  Since the new formula is 100% plant-based, it is easy on public sewers, septic systems, and biological cycles.

The consumer drops off their returnable packaging at the store, and for being an active member in this circular system, they receive a discount on their next purchase.  The packaging breaks down into a flat pack to save space and the store sends it back to the manufacturer on a return load after delivering a new product to the store.

In this scenario, costs are reduced along the value chain.  The manufacturer may have to pay a little more for the new formulation and to generate the dissolvable pods, but they don’t have to pay for shipping bulky dispensers or for shipping the water weight.  The store pays less because it eliminates single-use packaging. More of the product can be shipped on a single load and stocked on a store shelf.  The consumers pay less if they return the knock-down packaging and participate in this system.

The thinking applied to this simple example is a fundamental change to the system that drives our wastes.  This same thinking can be applied to just about any product that is part of the technical or biological cycles.

Final Thoughts

It is time we start to understand the toll of our choices on society and we need to rethink our current economic system.

Redesigning based on circularity will create a more resilient and sustainable system where we can tackle the other major global challenges we face as a society.

Circularity is a new economic model. It maintains and in some cases increases the economic value of the materials and products that we already extract. It requires material transparency, products built for durability, and re-manufacturability. It requires changes to our distribution system and how consumers use products.

  1. “Biological and Technical Cycles”. University of Helsinki

Additional Sources:


Author’s Note:

HNI Corporation does not manufacture or have any affiliation with manufacturers of hand soap.  This illustrative example was chosen because, like all of you, we are washing our hands more than before.


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