Trash Talk — The Need for a Circular Economy

As a child of the ’90s, I have fond memories of trips to San Antonio’s North Star Mall with my mom. I used to love the excited hustle of moving crowds, the rustling of plastic bags, the feeling of getting something NEW, preferably from the Disney Store. In retrospect, it amazes me how much happiness I derived from a few pieces of cheap, brightly colored plastic. Nowadays, I would rather spend the night jabbing myself with a staple remover than go to the mall. I’m not alone, either: shopping malls are on the decline in the U.S. E-commerce, however, is not slowing down anytime soon, especially thanks to the meteoric rise of Amazon, which now accounts for 47% of total U.S. online retail .

I made my first Amazon purchase back in college, around 2010. As a car-less sophomore stuck on campus, I needed new reading material and didn’t want to shell out for the overpriced university bookstore offerings. Someone told me that Amazon had paperbacks for obscenely cheap prices, so I checked it out for myself. I bought Thomas Tryon’s classic horror novel Harvest Home for $1.89 from a third-party seller, and I returned during later years to search for cheaper copies of college textbooks after getting royally screwed by the university bookstore as a freshman. (I plan to one day start a nonprofit called Save the Freshmen that helps protect naive 18-year-olds from being upsold on all things school-related during orientation week).

After college, I got my first job and started moving away from my parents’ financial backing. As I made more discretionary income, I found a sense of freedom in spending from the comfort of my own room. I ordered all manner of goods from Amazon, closely followed by bargain sites like Zulily and I didn’t realize how hooked I’d gotten on the thrill of shopping until my parents started complaining about the number of packages showing up on the doorstep. I didn’t stop right away, but I have become more mindful in the years since that I consume more on an “as felt” than an “as needed” basis.

Since I moved into my first house with my husband, I’ve done a considerable amount of shopping, and so I’ve been thinking more about our consumption habits, often with more guilt than thoughtfulness. Now that I live in a forested area, I find myself feeling more self-conscious about my habits. My neighborhood is so beautiful, sometimes it shocks me. I see deer roaming the streets, fireflies at night, and an incredible ambient chorus of frogs, cicadas, crickets, and owls at night. But all of this wonder is compromised by the enormous volume of the trash we produce each year. It’s easy to forget in the U.S., since we ship most of our plastic waste to poorer countries. Out of sight is out of mind, but not existence. I do my best to recycle all cardboard, hard plastic, and aluminum that we consume, but it seems like a (albeit biodegradable) spit in the ocean.

There is, however, a developing alternative that gives me some hope: the circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based charity that counts as members some of the world’s leading consumer packaged goods companies, says that the idea “entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.” At a business level, this can mean companies turning toward more environmentally friendly product packaging, or recycling byproducts and waste throughout the entire manufacturing cycle. Ultimately, initiatives like this are the ones that can make the most difference in the world. Since the companies that make them up are large polluters, it is fitting that they should be part of the solution.

But how does a guilty feeling millennial try to take a (carbon-neutral) footstep in the right direction? Over the past year, I’ve been working on a personal expression of the circular model via my online shopping habits. Now, every time I want to buy something, I stop and ask myself: do I have to get it new? Are there alternatives available? What are the best sources for this particular item? I’ve made a sort of mental filter comprising several of my favorite resale sites:

  • Half Price Books: I haven’t bought a new paperback in a long time. HPB is my favorite source for online book-buying, often with more competitive pricing than Amazon.
  • ThredUp: The world’s largest online clothing thrift platform. They ship promptly and use good quality-control techniques. As a bonus, they use recyclable cardboard envelopes to ship all boxes.
  • Mercari: A general-purpose thrifting site. Great for housewares and decoration especially.
  • Chairish: The site that sparked my love for mid-century mod decor. A great resource for vintage houseware and furniture hunters.
  • eBay: I think we all know this one, minus readers who’ve just left the rock they lived under for twenty years.
  • Etsy: Some Etsy artists are very conscientious producers, and I enjoy supporting them. On another note, there are many wonderful furniture restorers who sell classic vintage pieces that they’ve rescued from the brink of landfills.

Do I always find what I want on these sites when I want it? Of course not. But I can say that by now I’ve saved hundreds of dollars on like-new clothes that would otherwise have been tossed into a landfill. Books are biodegradable, but I still like the thought of saving a seagull from chewing on pulp paper, as it’s not good for the digestion. Ask yourself what types of goods retain value and utility long-term. My personal favorites are:

  • Artwork and prints
  • Books
  • Clothes and accessories
  • Electronics (the desire to replace every year is more psychological than anything else)
  • Fitness Equipment
  • Vintage Furniture

The world’s trash problem is absolutely daunting. No single person or company can solve it. But even incremental changes at the individual level can make a small stride in the right direction. Remember, the motto is “REDUCE, REUSE, Recycle.”

Model of traditional Linear Economy vs. Circular Economy. Credit: Shutterstock

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