What is the Circular Economy?

The Rediscovery Centre is the National Centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland. To find out more about the Circular Economy and our role as the National Centre, watch this video:

What is the Circular Economy?

Our current economic system is not circular, it is linear. In a linear economy, we take resources from nature to create products. These products are used and then thrown away. However, an economy that is based on taking, making, and disposing of products causes significant environmental problems. The way we live in Ireland and in most European countries is unsustainable, depleting the world’s limited resources and creating ever more waste. If every human used as many resources as Europeans, we would need 2.6 Earths to support our population. Realising the limits of our planet’s resources, a new way of thinking has emerged: the circular economy. The circular economy aims to create positive value for society, economy and the environment.

Circular Economy Model



Three Principles

The circular economy is inspired by nature, where the value of all resources is maximised. Take, for example, fallen leaves from trees providing nutrients for new plants to grow. In a circular economy, the value of materials and resources is retained for as long as possible and the creation of waste is minimised or prevented entirely. The aim of the circular economy is to decouple economic growth from resource use. A circular economy keeps products in use for as long as possible and avoids waste generation. This can be achieved through sustainable design principles, reuse, repair, remanufacturing, recycling and new business models, such as sharing, renting or offering products as a service. Rental and product-service businesses (e.g. GoCar, DublinBikes, UrbanVolt), for instance, enable products to be used sustainably while being maintained by the company that owns them.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a global influencer and thought leader for the circular economy, the three principles of a circular economy are as follows:

1.Design out Waste and Pollution

Around 80% of environmental impacts of a product are determined in the design stage. Rethinking design can help change the way our products are made and used. For example, we can build products from recycled or biological materials, items that use less energy and water, that are durable and reparable, or set up a business service around using a product instead of owning it. Additionally, hazardous or problematic materials are substituted with less hazardous ones to ensure products are safe to reuse and recycle.

2.Keep Products and Materials in Use

Did you know that cars are only used for 2% of their capacity in Europe? Or that more than 50% of our fast fashion ends up in the bin within one year?
In a linear economy, we underutilise resources and waste products. In a circular economy, these products and materials are kept in use, or circulation, through reuse, repair, remanufacturing, recycling and new business models, such as renting or sharing products. If a product is broken or unwanted, it is returned and used again, reducing the need for virgin materials and the environmental impact of extraction and processing.

3.Regenerate Natural Systems

Taking again the example of the fallen leaves that nourish the forest, the circular economy aims to return used biological resources to the natural world so they can add positively to the environment. Biological resources have high value to the economy and are used in food products, animal feed-stock, construction, fuels, pharmaceuticals, etc. In a circular economy, products are designed so that natural materials are returned to the environment after their use to feed the next generation of biological materials.

To find out more about the Circular Economy and the Rediscovery Centre’s work as the National Centre for the Circular Economy:

Circular Economy Academy
Circular Economy Conversations
Policy work
Resource library