When scrolling online or listening to what is going on in the world, never before have we seen so many references to “sustainability” or making “sustainable” choices when it comes to consumption of products and services. The climate crisis has intensified their usage, but it begs the question of whether we all agree on what the word sustainability means. And how is it different, for example, from recycling, which is often used, incorrectly, as an interchangeable term with sustainability. And then we must consider “the circular economy,” which raises the question of how all three are related.
Let’s start with sustainability. Merriam-Webster defines it this way:
“of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”
This is a good grounding, but it is a dictionary meaning, and it misses the fact that sustainability, in addition to being a method of using a resource, is also a mentality, a way of thinking about the world. A point-of-view that understands material as having a circular life span, one that is born and reborn, and not just a singular life of usage and discard. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation puts it: “the linear economy has to change.”
The United Nations, in their definition, reminds us that it is people’s overuse today that impacts people tomorrow. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
That is a mindset as much as a way of managing resources.
Where Recycling Fits In
Recycling is often used as the be-all, end-all term when people want to talk about reusing something in its most practical sense. For many of us, recycling simply means curbside recycling practices at home. But in a more macro, expansive way, the best way to think of recycling is as a critical component of the circular economy.
And the circular economy, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is a process that “entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources,” and it includes three critical principles:
- Design out waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
Recycling is a critical component of the second principle, a component that has had many fits and starts, but is often linked historically to the 1971 Oregon Bottle Bill, the first bill of its kind in the United States, incentivizing recycling with monetary value for each container returned.
Today, of course, the challenge of protecting our environment has never been more critical, as the climate crisis worsens. Sustainability remains a must, both as a mindset, and a permanent change in how we mange resources.
Digimarc offers a range of sustainability solutions, is a participant in the HolyGrail 2.0 plastic recycling initiative and is involved with organizations pushing to implement a circular economy.