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Jan 2021 | Why is the circular economy important and how do I participate?

Welcome, friends, to 2021, year of the circular economy. (We'll try our very best.)

We have so much to celebrate already! We almost have 3,000 people in our little movement AND much more importantly, environmental legislation in the United States has a brighter future due to Georgia's Senate race results. This is a big deal for the whole world.

Our topic for January is going to be "The Circular Economy." I mentioned in December that we would be focused on waste and plastic β€” that'll still be a significant part of our actions, but I wanted to apply a slightly broader lens as we enter a new year.

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Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

πŸ’Œ Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
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Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
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"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter."Β - Meghan Mehta, Google

Read:Β What economy are we in right now?Β Why circles?

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  • πŸ”» We're currently living in the linear economy.
    It's also called the take-make-waste system: resources are taken from the ground to make products which are used, and when those products are no longer needed or used, they are wasted.

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The take-make-waste progression of resources taken from the ground, making products which are used, and wasting those products when they are no longer needed

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  • πŸš‚ The linear economy started when we invented the steam engine.
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    In 1694, the steam engine made it possible to mass produce things for the first time in history. It's not a coincidence that since the 1700s, CO2 emissions have been steadily increasing because of human activities of mass production. CO2 levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

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  • πŸ–ŒοΈ 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage.
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    We need to start viewing waste as a design flaw to ensure that waste and pollution aren't created in the first place.

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  • πŸŒ€ A circular economy shifts the system by involving everyone.
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    We can design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

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  • 🌐 A circular economy can lead to a 48% reduction in CO2 by 2030!
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    This is huge news since emissions and climate change can be so overwhelming. It's also a win-win: the consumer goods industry can save ~$700 million USD annually.

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Listen:Β The Story of Stuff

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All you have to do today is watch a short 20-minute movie about the Story of Stuff. This video's been around since 2009, and is still one of the BEST videos I've seen about production and consumption.

You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely. β€” Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff


They alsoΒ have a fact sheet that took me ~30 seconds to read and I've included video highlights below.

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In last week's module, we described the linear economy as a take-make-waste model. The Story of Stuff puts it in different words:

  1. ⛏️ Extraction (aka "take") β€” we're running out of resources. In only the three decades prior to 2010, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. If everyone consumed at US rates, we'd need 3 - 5 planets.

  2. πŸ”© Production (aka "make") β€” we are putting toxins in our workplaces, schools, and homes. In the U.S., industry admits to releasing over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year. (Key word: admits.) The linear economy has serious health repercussions, not just for the earth but for our own bodies.

  3. πŸš› Distribution (kinda a continuation of "make") β€” do you wonder why, even though our products travel across the world faster than they ever have, we're paying lower prices than ever? These products aren't magically cheap. It's just that company owners externalize the costs β€” instead of charging higher prices, they pay via exploiting the earth and human laborers worldwide.

  4. πŸ‘• Consumption (the heart of take-make-waste) β€” The average U.S. person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. 99% of the stuff we run through our linear system is trashed within six months!

    I highly recommend watching the video to understand how government and corporations worked together to create this system β€” it didn't happen on accident.

  5. πŸ—‘οΈ Disposal (aka "waste") β€” According to the Story of Stuff, for every one garbage can of waste you put out on the curb, 70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the curb.Β 


That's it for today. I hope you enjoy the video!

Act:Β 8 resources to participate in the circular economy

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  1. πŸ’Œ Join your local Buy Nothing group. The Buy Nothing Project is based on a hyperlocal gift economy. It's not a marketplace for selling or trading β€” it's a way of giving and receiving with abundance while meeting your neighbors (even digitally, for now). This group has been my #1 source of joy (and furniture) over the past month. Other options for secondhand buying/gifting include Freecycle, FB marketplace, and Craigslist.
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  2. 🏠 Declutter your home and gift your things. You can use the Marie Kondo method after watching her Netflix show, Tidying Up. Her method helps you identify what possessions spark joy in your life and what you can let go of. Post your things on Buy Nothing so they can continue to circulate!
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  3. πŸ₯¬ Eliminate food waste by auditing and replanting. Ends+Stems has a free food waste audit so you can see how much time, money, and food your household is throwing away. It's a fun way to get kids involved! To truly make this circular, compost or re-plant your food scraps.
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  1. πŸ”„ Introduce the circular economy to your local city council member. Find your representative here. Plug their contact info into this email template to find out how you can make a local impact.
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  2. ✍🏼 Volunteer for BRINGiT to end single-use produce bags. BRINGiT's founders have had wins phasing out plastic in major stores β€” join them to see how you can play your part by giving your time.
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  1. πŸ”¨Check out your local tool library. I didn't know this till a Soapbox reader told me, but many big cities have tool libraries where you can rent and give tools so you don't need to buy new ones. Find your local tool library and if you don't have one, here's a comprehensive guide on starting your own!
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  2. πŸ›οΈ Get plastic-free grocery delivery. I recently heard of Zero Grocery and haven't had a chance to try them yet, but it looks like they're FINALLY solving the problem many of us are grappling with: how to reduce plastic waste grocery shopping during COVID, especially when you get delivery.
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  3. πŸ€‘ Ask your company how they plan on participating in the circular economy. Feel free to reply with more info about your company/role and I can give you some ideas. For example, if you work in consulting, Big Oil, or fashion, you can make an enormous impact.
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(P.S. we're thinking of launching a membership program where we can source some of these more curated actions for you β€” would love to hear if you'd be interested!)

Reflect:Β an exclusive interview with Imperfect Foods

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As you read this, I'd like you to reflect on: what companies, habits, and practices can you include in your life to be more "circular"?

In this final REFLECT module, I'm going to share 5 things I learned about Imperfect Foods. They prevent wonky food from going to waste - just because it looks strange, doesn't mean it should be thrown away!


As we learned this month, waste is a fundamental design flaw in our current linear system. The circular system reimagines and redesigns systems that create waste, just like Imperfect is doing with produce.

You might have also seen some criticisms of the "ugly produce" model, which I asked Rose about.

Aaaahh, truly so much to reflect on today: the good, the bad, and the ugly produce.

Here's 5 thingsΒ learned from her, and here's the full article.

  1. 🀯 Each month, Imperfect purchases around four million pounds of produce that otherwise would have been tilled under, composted, landfilled, sold to a processor or placed on the open consignment market where produce items have a higher likelihood of going to waste.

  2. ✈️ When COVID disrupted business models, Imperfect stepped in to save food β€” they saved and sold airline snacks like cheese and popcorn from JetBlue!

  3. 🚘 In 2020, Imperfect’s last mile delivery system emitted around 13,000 tCO2e less than the US average for car trips to the grocery store for the same deliveries. That’s the equivalent of taking 2,800 cars off the road for a year.

  4. πŸ‘” Five things that will help you if you're considering a career in sustainability (or making change at your workplace) are making the financial case for sustainability, making initiatives company-wide, flexing your analytical skills, writing effectively, and bringing joy and inclusion.

5 skills of a sustainability manager (catch us on IGΒ @soapboxproject)
  1. ✍🏽 One of the best ways to take action as a consumer is to write to the companies you patronize and tell them what you want them to do. Share your values, why sustainability is important, etc.


The co-founders of BRINGiT (the other Q&A I shared earlier on ending single-use plastic produce bags) also emphasize something similar - posting pictures of plastic stuff when you grocery shop, and then tagging the retailer and orgs like BRINGiT so the retailers feel pressured to change.


That's it for today! I hope you take the weekend to reflect on everything you learned this month about the circular economy.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

πŸ’Œ Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Take action
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter."Β - Meghan Mehta, Google