Can a Circular Economy Salvage the Climate?

Produce, consume, discard; we all know the routine. Raw materials are extracted, produced into goods, and used – sometimes only once – before turning into waste. And maybe we think that recycling that Starbucks cup or Smartwater bottle is the best we can do for the planet. But that’s the wrong way to think about it, says John Lanier of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “Recycling is not the answer or the solution to advancing the circular economy,” Lanier asserts. It's an answer, but actually one of the weakest ones. It’s what we should do as a last result before we throw something in a landfill.” Like his grandfather Ray Anderson, a pioneer in corporate sustainability, Lanier advocates for a mindset in which products are designed and manufactured with a focus on permanence, rather than disposability. “In this vision for the future we become owners of things…not consumers of them,” Lanier explains. “That’s a big and radical shift.” Rethinking our manufacturing methods and energy resources is another key element, says Beth Rattner of the Biomimicry Institute. “When we start talking about pulling carbon out of the air, taking it from source emitters, pulling methane off of farms and creating new kinds of stuff, new kinds of plastic…that’s the recycling story we should be telling.” Finding ways to imitate nature’s most efficient methods, such as structural color, is an exciting new development in product design. “Imagine if everything we made was functionally indistinguishable from nature,” Rattner says. “That's the goal. “Because when you walk into a forest, that whole forest is working toward a single common good, which is the protection of the forest; that is its survival strategy.” And as more and more corporations and consumers embrace the concept of a “circular economy,” it may turn out to be ours as well. Guests John Lanier, co-author, Mid-Course Correction Revisited: The Story and Legacy of a Radical Industrialist and his Quest for Authentic Change (Chelsea Green, 2019) Beth Rattner, executive director, Biomimicry Institute Peter Templeton, president and CEO, Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute Mike Sangiacomo, president and CEO, Recology Related Links: Ray C. Anderson Foundation Biomimicry Institute Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute Recology Nathaniel Stookey's Junkestra: A Symphony of Garbage | The Kennedy Center (Youtube) The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (Paul Hawken) This program was recorded in front of a live audience at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on May 7, 2019 Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

by Climate One