Section 3.2: Linear economy and the limits to linear consumption

The linear model of production has dominated the global industrial systems since the Industrial Revolution. In the linear production model, raw materials and resources are extracted from the Earth, refined or processed, and then transported to factories to be manufactured into various products. The final products are transported to their final destinations, bought by consumers, used, and then discarded when they have ended their lifespan or become obsolete (i.e. replaced by newer versions).

In this linear economy, materials are sometimes accessed and moved across the world, not just once but many times over.

The vast majority of discarded products (waste) is taken to landfill or incinerated; only a small portion recovered or recycled. In sum, it is a “take, make, and waste” model where waste is produced, and energy is expended, at every step.

Source: Based on Bob Doppelt, The Power of Unsustainable Thinking (2008) and Systems Conditions, The natural step

The “take, make, and waste” approach results in significant resource losses throughout the production process. However, low prices of resource and labor reinforce this system, as does the ease of acquiring new resources and the low costs to dispose of waste.

Material recovery is therefore not a high priority in our economic system. In 2010 alone, 65 billion tonnes of virgin raw material entered the global production systems.  This figure is expected to grow to 82 billion tonnes by 2020.

Source: OECD; Belvens 2007; WMM Global Insight; Ellen MacArthur Foundation circular economy team

The linear production model incurs and perpetuates unnecessary resource losses in several ways. Explore the links below to find out how.

3.2.1 Waste within the production chain
3.2.2 End of life waste losses
3.2.3 Energy use losses
3.3.4 Ecosystem service losses

Trends of a waning Linear Economy

– Increased exposure of businesses to externalities and risk, in the form of higher and less predictable resource prices, alongside supply disruptions as a result of increased competition for limited quantities of resources.

– Current gains made in manufacturing are largely incremental with low efficiency, and are insufficient to facilitate real competitive advantage or drive economic growth.

– Declines in agricultural productivity have led to more intensive inputs and associated costs, due to reduced soil fertility and lowered nutrition value of produce. This causes a disparity in input costs to output value.

– Increased risk to supply security and safety due to widespread and elaborate networks of optimized global supply chains. Significant leakages occur as a result of disperse global supply chains (See Section 3.4).

– Resource intensive production operations struggle for “a license to operate” within sensitive, local and limited resource markets. Higher values placed on resources in such (resource scarce/sensitive) regions significantly diminish the operational capabilities of resource intensive operations.

Supplementary Resources

US Chamber of Commerce Foundation “How long can our linear waste economy continue?”

World Economic Forum “The Limits of Linear Consumption” 

How pig parts make the world turn

Everyday things mining makes possible

The Simpsons – A World Without Zinc

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