OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Let's precycle! Act now to stop tomorrow's waste.

Anyone can precycle. Everything can be precycled. Let's do circular economy 4real!

Photo of James Greyson
1 0

Written by

The many smart responses in this challenge show that there's no lack of technical and business solutions to avoid small-format packaging waste. However most of these solutions are not new and struggle against linear worldviews, information and economics. Some technical solutions also struggle from being too prescriptive, which stops them from being translated to other contexts or scaled up globally. Precycling is a non-prescriptive, translatable, scalable meta-solution that can create the circular worldviews, data and economics needed locally and globally!  

Precycling is what we can do now to stop a product from ending up as future waste in ecosystems. Almost all the important decisions, that determine future waste, happen before something becomes rubbish. By redesigning the product, and what happens to the product, everything can be precycled in some way. Precycling solves the problem with conventional waste management, which focusses on how to dispose of stuff that people throw away. 

Precycling can deliver circular worldviews. The linear worldview sees only ways to get rid of waste. Circular worldviews see how disposed waste can become ecosystem waste, that accumulates in the land, air or water. Precycling helps people see the opportunities for they can do now to stop future ecosystem waste. This makes it normal to see our role in a world of circular flows where products of all kinds (including small format plastics) will become new resources for people or nature. 

Precycling can deliver circular data to guide decisions. The key metric is waste-risk, which is the likelihood that a product will become ecosystem waste. Linear products, such as unrecyclable packaging, non-biodegradeable additives and fossil fuels, have high waste-risk. Products that have been precycled, that we know should not end up as waste in ecosystems because all the necessary work has been done, have low waste-risk. A 'precycled' label will help guide shoppers.

Precycling can deliver circular economics. Any serious shift to circular economy needs a new economic tool. Precycling insurance is an obligatory insurance for producers, to provide producer responsibility for waste-risk and preventively account for waste externalities. High waste-risk products would have higher premiums, making them less competitive. Premiums would be spent across the economy to cut waste-risk by supporting precycling - including work to stop plastic waste.

Design evaluation

  • Big potential? Yes! 100% of local small-format plastic waste could be eliminated by precycling. The simple non-prescriptive language of precycling makes it easier to engage all stakeholders to collaborate on innovative solutions. Precycling delivers the necessary new mindsets, data and economics. 
  • Helps other impacts? Yes! Unintended consequences can be avoided by the goal of precycling all products to protect all ecosystems, so for example diverting plastic wastes from oceans into the atmosphere is clearly not a solution. Other products, including fuels, should also be precycled, to avoid climate impacts.
  • Feasible? Yes! Precycling does not require new materials, technology or support systems - but encompasses these innovations where available. For example where an investment is needed to purchase bulk products, a new financing method would be an important way to precycle small packets. 
  • Innovative? Yes! Precycling provides a vital new type of solution - the meta-solution, which can be applied in diverse settings and scales. For example a householder can precycle by simply not using disposable plastic straws, a business can precycle by providing refillable alternatives and a government can precycle by enacting precycling insurance. 
  • Human centred? Yes! Precycling responds to people's needs by shifting the focus from standardised, technical or imposed solutions to innovative, broad and collaborative solutions based on what everyone can do. Rather than boring people with the 3 Rs or 'helicoptered' solutions, we can engage with what actually works in different situations.
  • Scalable? Yes! Elements, materials, products, businesses and even whole economies can be precycled - on the way to achieving a precycled planet. The estimated market for precycling-related services (public education, design training, waste-risk assessment and policy advice) after 5 years is £1b. The long term economic potential (of the economic tool) is to correct the waste-dependence of capitalism.
  • Regionally applicable? Yes! Precycling is flexible and non-prescriptive so regional differences are accommodated. For example developing countries may precycle with more use of biodegradable materials while developed countries may precycle with more reliance on recycling infrastructure. 
  • Accelerator readiness? Yes! This could be part of the core language of tomorrow's 'circular economics' but needs support for further development and real-world use-cases in order to be adopted in public and policy discussions. 


  1. Paper published in Journal of Cleaner Production, 2006: An economic instrument for zero waste, economic growth and sustainability. Author’s copy on Academia.
  2. Paper published by NATO, 2008: Systemic Economic Instruments for Energy, Climate, and Global Security. Author's copy on Academia (see section 4).
  3. Paper published by NATO, 2010: Seven policy switches for global security. NATO Advanced Research Workshop, Split. Author's copy on Academia (see section 4 on circular economy).
  4. Presentation of precycling at Scottish Resources Conference. Video
  5. Precycling in international best practice case study in ‘Governments Going Circular’ by Dutch Sustainability Business Association.

Idea Title

Let's precycle! Act now to stop tomorrow's waste.

Company / Organization Name

Circular Economy 4Real


Where are you / your team located?


How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Small format plastic packaging waste can all be precycled in a range of ways, so tomorrow's products will no longer end up as junk in the land, air and water. The challenge is not really technical since many good solutions are presented in this contest and elsewhere. The challenge is to be ambitious enough to make these solutions the new normal, with new design and problem-solving dialogues, new mindsets, new data and new economic signals.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

All - cases 1, 2 &3.

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

Local and global.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

Small and large business case studies, with precycling used as a tool for better communication, engagement and design. Learning materials for precycling as an approach to multiple resource-related problems, with small format plastic items as case studies. Online tool to assess waste-risk. Report on precycling as a framework for producer responsibility and resource externalities. Obstacles? The cultural blindspot that favours micro-solutions and filters out meta-solutions.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

The TBPAP would provide vital support and advice to accelerate my solution via the scaling up activities (ie key steps) mentioned above. Long term success would be public awareness of precycling as something that anyone can do, plus government awareness of precycling as a way to deliver circular economics.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

Individual idea, based on Maureen O'Rorke's 1988 concept of precycling for public waste prevention education in Berkeley, California and Kenneth Boulding's 1965 idea of the spaceship economy for circular resource flows.

Tell us about your work experience

Professional engineering background; experience with a think tank for complex global problems.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure


1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi James,

Excited to see you joining this challenge. We noticed your post is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have it be included in the challenge. You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your post by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top.

We're looking forward to seeing your contribution in this challenge.