Circular Products: What Are They and Do They Really Exist?

As a company specializing in industrial plastic recycling, we have a vested interest in the circular economy. The circular economy is of course, fueled by circular products. At least that is the underlying thought. What you might not know is that the circular economy principle is not as black-and-white as it might seem. This is easily understood by examining what circular products are and whether they really exist.

A truly circular economy that produces zero waste is not technically possible. So to the extent that we understand circular products, the goal is to eliminate waste as much as possible. This requires an entirely new way of thinking. It requires thinking about product end-of-life in such a way as to anticipate how said product could be recycled, reused, or repurposed.

What are circular products?

Circular products are loosely defined as products designed around the circular economy. That does not help unless you understand the circular economy principle. The circular economy eliminates waste by finding ways to utilize unwanted products rather than throwing them away.

As things currently stand, manufacturers rarely think about what happens to their products at end-of-life. Indeed, that is why we are able to recycle so many commercial plastics. Manufacturers just assume their unwanted products will be thrown away. That’s not a problem for them. They design their products to last long enough for consumers to get decent life out of them. After that, it is into the trash they go.

In a circular economy, the trash can is eliminated from the equation. A product no longer wanted by the consumer is recovered and either reused or repurposed. This would continue cycle after cycle until the product’s practical life has ended. At that point, all the individual components that make up the product are recovered and recycled.

Do circular products really exist?

The answer to the question of whether circular products really exist depends on how loosely you define your terms. If the goal of the circular economy is to completely eliminate waste, then the answer is ‘no’. It is impossible to eliminate all waste from the human experience. The very laws of physics explain why.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to define the circular economy as one that minimizes waste to the greatest degree, then you can say circular products really do exist. One example is the cell phone. It is often touted as a great example of how the circular economy works.

People in developed nations buy new cell phones all the time. But rather than throwing those phones away, they can be turned over to recycling companies or even phone manufacturers themselves. The phones can be physically refurbished, wiped out in terms of their software, given new software, and sold on the secondary market in developing countries.

Such a scenario exemplifies how the circular economy is supposed to work. Rather than being thrown away, used cell phones are given new life. But eventually, even those phones will no longer be usable. That is where recycling comes in.

Does recycling completely eliminate waste?

Recycling further extends a circular product’s life by recovering as many reusable materials as possible. But even in that, there will be some waste. At a product’s absolute end-of-life, certain parts of that product will not be recoverable or reusable in any meaningful way.

Commercial plastic recycling contributes to the circular economy inasmuch as it transforms plastic waste into reusable material. So while circular products in their purest form don’t really exist, there are plenty of scenarios in which we get pretty darned close.