Circular economy 101

Simply put, the circular economy is based on the idea of using the same resources over and over again – rather than continuously extracting more from nature.

We are currently wasting too many resources by using the items we make for a short time before throwing them away. A lot of these items are single-use products that go straight into landfill after one use. We urgently need to change our behaviour, and that is where the circular economy approach comes in.

The circular economy is a global concept that represents a big change in thinking. The idea is that products are designed from the start to last a long time and be easily repaired, or to be ‘unmade’ after use and the materials either made into something new or returned to nature – all without creating pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.

New Zealand has already begun a shift towards a circular economy approach, with many businesses starting to make positive changes. One example is the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration, where 17 local and multi-national businesses have publicly committed to use 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025 – so that means none of their packaging should end up in landfill.

What will it take to get there?

Manufacturers need to think about the full lifecycle of their products when they start designing them, including end-of-life considerations.

For example:

  • Where did the materials come from? Are they ‘virgin’ materials (ie, newly extracted from nature) or are they recycled or repurposed? Are materials safe for nature?
  • Is the product durable – will it last a long time, and can it be easily fixed in New Zealand if it breaks?
  • Can the components/materials be easily separated for reuse or recycling after use?
  • What secondary uses exist for the materials?

A true circular economy approach means looking at the whole supply chain, and this means suppliers, manufacturers and retailers need to work together.

Consumers also play a role through the products they choose to buy, and taking responsibility for disposing of products appropriately after use – whether that’s ensuring they follow their local council rules for kerbside recycling or finding out where to take e-waste like old mobile phones for recycling. 

What is product stewardship and how does it differ from a circular economy?

Product stewardship is part of a circular economy. It simply means that manufacturers take responsibility for the whole-of-life environmental impacts of their products.

There are currently 14 Government-accredited voluntary product stewardship schemes in New Zealand, and many others that aren’t accredited. The Government is also looking at establishing mandatory product stewardship schemes for problematic waste streams, including e-waste (starting with lithium-ion batteries), vehicle tyres, agrichemicals, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases.

Does a circular economy have any other environmental benefits?

Taking a circular economy approach will help to reduce carbon emissions. That’s because it takes a lot more energy to extract raw materials from nature and to manufacture them into goods than it does to reuse materials that have already been extracted. A circular economy is also grounded in a commitment to zero pollution, eliminating harmful materials and greenhouse gas emissions (eg, using renewable energy sources for manufacturing and transport).

How can I help to get New Zealand to make the transition to a circular economy?

Reduce, reuse and recycle! And follow our smart shopping guide to support those business that are adopting circular economy principles.


Got some more ideas on how to prevent waste at home? Share them with us on social media.

Circular economy 101