Sustainability – Linear versus Circular Economic Model

garbage canGrowing up in the United States I’ve heard America referred to as “The Land of Plenty” or “The Disposable Society”. The quote “Go West young man” was often said to me as a young man, maybe jokingly or perhaps they were serious, while I was wondering what to do as I grew up. (And before you email, yes, the quote first appeared as the title to the 1851, Terre Haute Express editorial written by Mr. Soule and is often credited to Mr. Greeley.)

These expressions implied to me that we were living in a limitless country. Free to use what we wanted, expand as we wanted with no thought to where the next supply of “stuff” was coming from.

As we have learned, that is not the case. Not just for America, but for all countries. When you start to visualize the planet as R. Buckminster Fuller did, as  “spaceship earth”, you  start to see a closed system. And, just like a spaceship we only started this journey with the supplies we packed.

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart of the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA) has a great illustration that represents this “Take > Make > Waste” linear approach to manufacturing and lifestyles.

Take-Make-WasteNow this is where the concept of sustainability starts to get interesting. Examining this linear process is part Industrial Ecology, part Sherlock Holmes, and part Andy Taylor. The Sherlock Holmes piece is where you start to see what others have looked at, but not seen, Industrial Ecology provides a systematic engineered approach and Andy Taylor, well that’s where you use good old fashion common sense to decide what works for you and your organization.

Bob Doppelt gives a wonderful model that takes the linear approach and generates a circular “borrow-use-return” economic model:


This isn’t just a “Hey let’s recycle our cans approach!” This is a “Let’s go back to the drawing board and rethink the entire process!” Now that’s something to get excited about. Oh yeah, for you pure-play business types, this is where your money is. If you don’t believe me, ask Clorox.

It’s at this point where you question previous assumptions, kill sacred cows, and develop new processes, procedures and methodologies! This is working at the core of sustainability and this is why I do what I do!

2 thoughts on “Sustainability – Linear versus Circular Economic Model

  1. Good post Jesse. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. Only days ago I saw a blogger write that there were reasons to be mindful of the environment, but not “for it’s own sake.” It struck me as amazingly foolish.

    I think most people have not yet come to the realization that in the end, there are no unanswered actions. There are no policies, products or processes that do not affects us in some way. There is no what is good for us vs. what is good for the environment.

    To make that change, sustainability cannot be thought of as a technological fix that supplements a wasteful way of life. Instead, sustainability is a lifestyle–an all encompassing mentality of balance, stasis and connectivity. There is probably no corner of our culture that could not see some rethinking for a new age of mindfulness.

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