Trash the Take-Make-Waste Model of Industry and Embrace the Regenerative Economy
It’s no secret that the current economic model that relies on limited resources and overconsumption isn’t sustainable. Economists and innovators are calling for a shift from a linear model to one that practices circularity in order to build a more regenerative economy.
With this approach, the economy would restore resources and reduce waste. Here’s why the regenerative model could be the key to building a better world.
The pitfalls of the take-make-waste model
The current economic model is linear. It takes energy or materials, transforms them into goods or services, and then passes them to businesses or consumers who use them. The outcome is financial gain for the agents involved, but the original resources disappear and waste is generated as a byproduct. Waste is also the result of an inefficient system, such as when 30% to 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is discarded.
Take-make-waste is not a sustainable model because economic growth is outpacing available resources. The consequences are dire for people and the planet. Some resources are being depleted at a fast pace, and we will run out of fossil fuels in 50 years or so. Waste has a significant environmental impact: 269,000 tons of plastic are wreaking havoc on oceanic biospheres. Greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and polluted water resources are damaging the planet.
But abandoning old habits is hard. This model has been in place since the industrial revolution, and bad design practices make up the very DNA of our economy, often in an effort to save time and money. Plus, entire industries rely on overconsumption and design products that are meant to be replaced quickly. One example is the fast fashion industry.
At a regulatory level, the attitude is usually to wait for growth and innovation to clean up the problems created by a growing economy. However, history suggests that this linear system keeps growing without ever addressing its shortcomings.
Moving toward a regenerative economy
The regenerative model takes its inspiration from nature, where key resources like carbon, oxygen and water go through cycles.
This circular model reuses, recycles and repairs. It requires economic agents to rethink the way they use resources. They need to incorporate recycling or repairing into their production processes and look for ways to get value out of unused materials.
The new model requires the creation of new networks. There is a need to connect different agents since the waste created by one industry can be used as a raw material by another. The current state of the environment has led to a strong push to prioritize areas like waste management, the food industry, the energy sector and rapidly developing cities.
A circular model offers several benefits:
- It limits the use of resources that aren’t renewable, making growth more sustainable.
- It integrates waste into the system through recycling or repairing rather than discarding, which reduces its environmental impact.
- It lowers the amount of pollution and waste, which means improved health and well-being for humans. Besides, a regenerative economy gives people access to work that feels more meaningful, such as careers in sustainable/impact design.
Potential barriers and solutions
Is adopting a regenerative model possible for all industries? In some areas, moving toward a sustainable model will require some fundamental changes.
Industries like the energy sector or the transportation industry will need to completely transform their business models to move away from finite resources like fossil fuels.
Other industries will need to adopt new business models that don’t rely on overconsumption to create value. For instance, electronics manufacturers that use techniques like built-in obsolescence and make devices difficult to fix will need a new approach that doesn’t rely on consumers purchasing a new device every year.
Passing right-to-repair laws could be a major step in transforming this business model. Besides adopting new legislation, governments can make a difference by implementing sustainable programs:
- China embraced the regenerative economy model in 2002 with some programs launched in a few pilot areas. For instance, a sludge-to-energy facility in Xiangyang turns wastewater and food waste into biochar and compressed natural gas.
- The Netherlands will have a fully circular economy by 2050. The country has already taken steps to transform its food industry as well as plastics, manufacturing, construction and consumer goods. The next step is to reduce the consumption of raw materials by half before 2030.
Businesses can also be powerful drivers for change:
- Some companies are expanding the services they offer. For instance, Ikea now has a buyback and resell program for used furniture in an effort to reduce waste.
- Some businesses are completely rethinking their models and moving away from resources that can’t be renewed. GM recently pledged to become an all-electric automaker by 2035.
- There are also new opportunities to explore. Startup Winnow launched a product that could transform the food industry by tracking food waste and delivering personalized insights for reducing it.
Switching to a regenerative economic model is a complex goal that requires change at several levels. Reading more about the regenerative model is a great place to start and you can get access to an array of resources on the Net Impact site.
You can also join your local Net Impact chapter and participate in the Regenerative Economy series to exchange ideas with other like-minded individuals.