What is a Circular Economy?
On this page:
- What is a circular economy?
- Why is it important?
- What is EPA doing to promote a circular economy?
- What other organizations are doing circular economy work?
A circular economy keeps materials and products in circulation for as long possible. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act refers to an economy that uses a systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative by design, enables resources used in such processes and activities to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, and systems (including business models). It is a change to the model in which resources are mined, made into products, and then become waste. A circular economy reduces material use, redesigns materials and products to be less resource intensive, and recaptures “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and products.
Circularity is embraced within the sustainable materials management (SMM) approach that EPA and other federal agencies have pursued since 2009. A circular economy approach under the SMM umbrella demonstrates continuity in our emphasis on reducing negative lifecycle impacts of materials, including climate impacts, reducing the use of harmful materials, and decoupling material use from economic growth and meeting society’s needs. EPA has a broad vision to help the nation address the full impacts of materials on our communities and has set out a transformative vision for our waste management system – one that is inclusive, more equitable, and reflects the urgency of the climate crisis – by releasing a series of strategies that will be dedicated to building a circular economy for all.
This work on a circular economy is an important part of slowing climate change. We must take action to address the climate crisis, and material recovery has an important role to play. The United Nations’ International Resource Panel concluded that natural resource extraction and processing contribute to about half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That is why EPA is developing strategies to identify the key actions needed to reduce the impact these materials can cause.
The circular economy, when designed in a thoughtful and inclusive manner, has the potential to protect the environment, improve economics, and elevate social justice. Sustainability from its foundation requires social equity. How we extract, use, and dispose of our resources can affect already vulnerable communities disproportionately.
Underserved communities across this nation have been overburdened with the negative environmental and health impacts caused by a non-circular economy. Many landfills and manufacturing and processing facilities are located in close proximity to low-income communities. EPA's circular economy for all aims to reduce waste and toxic materials and reuse critical minerals during manufacture and processing. Safe jobs and healthy communities are the goals.
- In December 2023, EPA issued for public comment the “Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics.”
- In April 2023, we put out for comment the "Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution."
- We are developing a draft strategy for electronics. Stay tuned!
- We showcased our efforts in creating a circular economy for all in Fiscal Year 2022 in the report Progress in Building a Circular Economy (pdf).
- In November 2021, we published the National Recycling Strategy: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All.
What other organizations are doing circular economy work?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
- European Union.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Circular Economy Modeling and Analysis Tools.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
- United Nations Environment Programme: Building Circularity.
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation: Circular Economy Toolbox for Small Businesses.
- World Circular Economy Forum.