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Circular Economy: Definition, Benefits, and Solutions

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Three people walking through a warehouse floor

Despite its reputation, polystyrene remains one of the world’s most common packaging materials. Polystyrene can take up to 500 years to decompose, and our environment is paying the price.

It can be overwhelming at times, but there’s hope. One of the benefits of a circular economy in the packaging material industry could be a significant reduction in polystyrene pollution一a massive win for mother nature!

Learn everything about circular economy: what it is, why circular economy packaging is something we should prioritize, and what the benefits of a circular economy are.

The Urgency Of Plastic Circular Economy

The world can no longer accept a plastic circular economy to be a case of wishful thinking. According to Roadrunner, more than 15 million metric tons of expanded polystyrene, popularly known as Styrofoam, are produced every year. Considering that an average takeout container weighs less than 14 ounces, that’s an unimaginable amount of polystyrene.

In 2018, the U.S. produced 80,000 tons of polystyrene container waste, of which only 5,000 tons were recycled. Of the 330,000 tons of other plastic packaging like loose-fill, shapes, coatings, and other items, only 20,000 tons were recycled. When all was weighed and tallied by resin, polystyrene had a recycling rate of a mere 0.9 percent.

Most discarded polystyrene ends up being landfilled, littering the environment, or burned. The synthetic polymer is essentially non-biodegradable. It’s also chemically stable; neither bacteria nor other microorganisms feed on it.

The situation is dire, but it’s not impossible. Circular economy packaging can help turn the polystyrene problem around.

The Definition Of Circular Economy

Before considering the benefits of a circular economy, we first need to understand the definition of the term.

A circular economy is a production and consumption model that aims to extend products’ lifecycles for as long as possible and keep waste to a minimum. This happens through recycling, refurbishing, repairing, reusing, renewing, sharing, and leasing.

At the end of a product’s lifespan, as many materials as possible are kept within the economy. This allows those materials to be used repeatedly, which creates additional value. Circular economy waste management is a circular departure from the linear economic model we’ve seen used for decades. The traditional linear model follows the unsustainable path of taking, making, consuming, and discarding, relying on large quantities of energy and cheap and easily accessible materials with no consideration for disposal.

Planned obsolescence is part of the linear model. It rewards products with limited lifespans that encourage consumers to discard those products and purchase new ones.

The Benefits Of A Circular Economy

The benefits of a circular economy include many environmental benefits but the benefits don’t stop there. A few of those benefits include:

1. The potential to disrupt or eliminate the linear economy model

Growing awareness of the negative impacts of the linear economy model could see a more significant number of manufacturers and consumers choosing a plastic circular economy. This could result in the disruption and eventual elimination of a resource-heavy model that contributes to pollution and climate change.

2. The reduction of packaging waste

Circular economy waste management and packaging can reduce the amount of packaging waste and landfill accumulation. Reusable packaging has a long lifespan and can be reused throughout the supply chain, resulting in less waste accumulation. Reusable packaging can also lead to fewer multiple layers of plastic bags, paper, and other expendable packing materials, further reducing waste accumulation. The reduction of waste means less land needed for landfills that can be used for greenspaces and other public land uses.

3. Less product damage and loss

Durable, reusable packaging helps maintain product integrity throughout the supply chain, resulting in less product damage and loss. This potentially could further reduce waste, especially if products damaged in transit cannot be repaired, repurposed, or recycled.

4. Better packaging waste management

Reusable packaging can be recovered, recycled, and reprocessed into more helpful packaging, preventing it from entering landfills and contributing to greater sustainability. Instead of being recycled and repurposed, compostable packaging can contribute to soil health, natural system regeneration, and food production. Many circular materials also make use of natural materials, often those that are waste from other industries such as agriculture.

5. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

According to Sustainable Business Toolkit, the U.S. manufactures approximately 3 million tons of polystyrene cups annually. This production process releases about 21 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The treatment of water used in the manufacturing process adds an additional 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. One of the benefits of circular economy packaging is a decrease in the amount of this greenhouse gas produced by manufacturing unsustainable packaging materials such as polystyrene.

Examples Of Circular Economy Solutions

The following inspiring examples of circular economy solutions demonstrate how individuals in various sectors are working to challenge the status quo:

1. Compostable packaging foam

Cruz Foam uses chitosan from shrimp shells discarded by the seafood industry to create a compostable packaging foam with the same thermal insulation and high mechanical properties as expanded polystyrene.

You can use the foam in packaging for appliances, electronics, and fragile goods. Lab testing showed that Cruz Foam broke down in 60 days or less with an average biodegradation in soil of 97.9%. The resulting organic waste can be used as nutrient-rich compost and for biogas-generated electricity. Cruz Foam is a USDA Certified Biobased Product and has passed ASTM D6400 and D6868 testing.

2. Plastics-derived road construction material

Co-founder of Scotland-based firm MacRebur, Toby McCartney, was inspired to recycle plastics into material used to construct roads. McCartney was inspired by a trip to India, where he saw locals filling potholes with melted plastic. He and his co-founders refined a method of turning plastic waste into granules that can be used for surfacing roads.

3. Biodegradable plastics derived from paper industry waste

U.S.-based start-up Mobius’ primary circular economy waste management model sees a paper industry waste product known as lignin turned into biodegradable plastic. While this plastic cannot replace all single-use plastics due to weakness, it is being used in the horticultural industry as a mulch film replacement in covering crops. The single-use petroleum-based plastics used in the past are not biodegradable, which means they would end up being burnt or landfilled.

Embrace the Circular Economy

Given the benefits of circular economy packaging and other sectors, the traditional linear model has begun to look as though it has more disadvantages than anything else. Let these examples of circular economy benefits and solutions inspire you to embrace an exciting new way forward.

Are you ready to make a difference? Contact Cruz Foam if you want to switch to a planet-friendly alternative to plastic and polystyrene.


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