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Let's precycle! We can design out all waste.

Think big! Try big-format solutions to stop waste from small-format plastics - and all other products.

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"What have we missed?" is the perfect question for this challenge, since 50 years has passed since both consumer plastics and the circular economy vision became available. Consumer plastics have apparently conquered the planet while the circular economy vision has stayed stuck in pilot projects. Looks like we must be missing something!

The many brilliant responses in this challenge show that there's no lack of clever technical solutions to avoid small-format packaging waste. These technical innovations are the 'small format solutions' that show how circular economy would be practical and feasible - if only we can add the 'big-format solutions' that take care of what keeps getting missed.  

I offer 4 possible big-format solutions as research for this challenge and hope that others will be interested to work with me to discuss and advance them. 

  1. Precycling. Precycling is what we can do now to stop a product from ending up as future waste. Almost all the important decisions, that determine future waste, happen before something becomes rubbish. By redesigning the product, and the circumstances around it, 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. 
  2. Ecosystem waste. Ecosystem waste is used materials that accumulate in ecosystems, such as the land, air or water, rather than taking part in a circular flow to become new resources for people or nature. Ecosystem waste solves the problem of thinking about waste as stuff we want to get rid of it, rather than thinking whether it fits in a circular resource flow.
  3. Waste-risk. Waste-risk 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 design work has been done, have low waste-risk. Waste-risk solves the problem of resource indicators that are effective only to keep report-writers busy, by measuring what matters for the linear-to-circular transformation.
  4. Precycling insurance. Precycling insurance is an obligatory insurance for producers, to provide producer responsibility for waste-risk. 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 all the necessary work to create a sustainable circular society.  Precycling insurance solves the problem of markets that don't account for ecological externalities and sustainability projects that can't find funds. It means the end of the 50 year-long pilot stage and the launch of real circular economy. 

Design evaluation

  • Small-format waste can be eliminated by precycling. The simple non-prescriptive language of precycling makes it easier to engage all stakeholders to collaborate on innovative solutions. 
  • 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. 
  • Precycling shifts the focus from standardised, technical or imposed solutions to innovative, broad and collaborative solutions based on what everyone can do.
  • Precycling is a systemic solution, applicable in diverse settings and scales, from wanting to avoid a plastic straw - to wanting to design waste out of capitalism.
  • This could become part of the core language of tomorrow's 'circular economics' but needs 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.

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Precycling, ecosystem waste, waste-risk and precycling insurance are big-format solutions, so you can apply them to any parts of the global waste problem that interest you. For example the single use energy gel pack that I found at the roadside is prewasted, since the multilayers are too hard to recycle. A cyclist could precycle it by refusing to buy it; a producer could precycle it by offering a refillable system; a government could precycle it with a ban or producer responsibility fee.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Be wary of common problem-solving habits, especially reductionism. We don't need more pilot projects we need fully working circular economies.

Tell us about yourself

I've been campaigning, researching and working on waste issues for almost 30 years. In a world that seems content with the illusion of solving global problems, I'd still like to do it for real. Let's make it happen!


Join the conversation:

Photo of James Greyson

Message copied from Jeremy Jones @Catenaut on twitter: " The project I worked on was replacing plastic food packaging with molded pulp containers made from food waste. 100% biodegradable and sustainable, but the cost was $0.09 cents per package instead of the $0.08 cents they paid for plastic so it never went anywhere." This is a super illustration of the need for a new collective worldview and an effective economic tool to ensure the new worldview and the new patterns of decision-making.

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