A plethora of junk surrounds me. The most wonderful smorgasbord of crockery, clocks, old typewriters, and coloured glass that catches the late golden light on this autumnal day. I’m sat in a coffee shop that also does a mean trade in tat. The three foot leopard is nosing a cuckoo clock only a child could conjure and I’m reminded of that old adage, ‘even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day’.  Which is pretty useless if you want a reliable timepiece, but scandalous in its position that even something broken has a purpose. Of course the other immediate proverb springing to mind  is the unchanging spots of the leopard.

This article is all about whether recycling actually addresses the problems it aims to solve.

The amount of trash we create is constantly increasing because increasing wealth means that people are buying more products and ultimately creating more waste. Increasing population means that there are more people on the planet to create waste. New packaging and technological products are being developed, much of these products contain materials that are not biodegradable. New lifestyle changes, such as eating fast food, means that we create additional waste that also isn’t biodegradable. For the masses, recycling, despite the broad availability of services, doesn’t really register as an important thing to do nor seen as a more general approach to life that does feed into the well being of the planet on so many levels.

The Cuckoo will lay its eggs in another bird’s nest and in one fell swoop relinquishes any responsibility for its offspring's birth and upbringing. Do we do the same with our waste? Exporting our problems and slapping the wrists of emerging markets as their burgeoning middle classes mirror ours as they strive for economic security.

Recycling is very important as waste has a huge negative impact on the natural environment. Harmful chemicals and greenhouse gasses are released from rubbish in landfill sites. Recycling helps to reduce the pollution caused by waste. Habitat destruction and global warming are some the effects caused by deforestation. Recycling reduces the need for raw materials so that the rainforests can be preserved.Huge amounts of energy are used when making products from raw materials. Recycling requires much less energy and therefore helps to preserve natural resources.

Recycling is essential to cities around the world and to the people living in them. We are quickly running out of  space for waste. Our landfill sites are filling up fast, by 2019, almost all landfills in the UK will be full. The importance of recycling to humans is clear. It reduces financial expenditure in the economy. Making products from raw materials costs much more than if they were made from recycled products. Recycling reduces the need for raw materials; it also uses less energy, therefore preserving natural resources for the future. Ultimately we preserve natural resources for future generations.

Reduce, reuse, recycle has become a mantra across the globe and many local councils and governments have made it so much easier for people to sort their trash at source making it much easier to process.

While all these efforts are laudable there is an argument that we have been fixing a problem without addressing its source. We simply create too much stuff. Stuff we don’t always need but even if we do, it’s detrimental effects to the environment once its life cycle has expired remains real.  It seems there is a fundamental design flaw that no amount of cosmetic attention will fix. We need a whole new design. And we need that design model clearly explained so every single person and government can contribute to its implementation. Luckily such a design system exists, it’s just that not many people know about it.

But can a leopard change its spots? Are we as a human race with all it’s historic systems and checks in place capable of making some fundamental decisions about how societies and economies work. And work for the betterment of humanity?

The Circular Economy concept has deep-rooted origins and cannot be traced back to one single date or author. Its practical applications to modern economic systems and industrial processes, however, have gained momentum since the late 1970s, led by a small number of academics, thought-leaders and businesses.

It is basically an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

Looking beyond the current make, use, dispose, extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital. Fundamentally it almost negates the need for recycling in the traditional sense at all.

There are several key areas which will help this notion take hold in the wider psyches of populations. It’s not complicated, which means people will ‘get it’ quickly and thus help implementation.

One of the key areas as with any new way of thinking is Education. We need to inspire learners to re-think the future through the circular economy framework. Critical mass is key to any movement reaching scale and then it becomes a no-brainer. Business and Government through private or grant aided innovations need to catalyse circular innovation and create conditions where the circular economy becomes the norm. This won’t happen overnight. Indeed the notion has been around in some form or another since the 1970’s. Providing robust evidence about the benefits and implications of the transition will mean Insight and Analysis are key if a step change is likely to happen. All this is great but unless the wider public are aware of it and get behind it then we will continue recycling goods that actually don’t need to be recycled. The shouldn’t exist in the first place. Therefore Communications will be fundamental in engaging a global audience around the circular economy.

The circular economy can fix a fundamental design flaw that currently makes our impact on the environment so very detrimental. It’s cleverness makes, once fully implemented, life on planet earth so much more bearable now and more importantly, sustainable for generations to come.

I’m leaving Cafe Junk Shop now with the cuckoo clock under my arm wondering if the leopard will ever change his spots.