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The Future Of The Circular Economy

The 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced over the last 60 years could fill approximately 7.2 trillion grocery bags.

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


The Royal Statistical Society’s (RSS) International Statistic of the Year may not have the glamour of the Golden Globes or the Oscars, but 2018 saw plastic take centre stage.  The winning statistic, 90.5%, was chosen because it represented the amount of plastic that has never been recycled globally. Whilst the award perhaps lacks the cachet of campaigns by people like Sir David Attenborough, it does nonetheless serve to illustrate the scale of the problem we face, and also the scale of the opportunity this presents.

Statistician Liberty Vittert, who served on the judging panel for the awards, recently conducted a back of the envelope calculation to illustrate the scale of the opportunity.  She hypothesized that the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced over the last 60 years could fill approximately 7.2 trillion grocery bags.  Based upon an estimated 3.25 cents it takes to produce a plastic bottle, this would equate to around $1 per grocery bag’s worth of plastic, or around $7.2 trillion worth of material currently being wasted. 

Doing more with less

This underlines what Andrew McAfee aptly describes in his latest book as the need to “do more with less”, as we face up to the need to wring more about of the Earth’s natural resources, both to maintain mankind’s progress and also to ensure that the planet isn’t ruined as we do so.

Despite McAfee arguing that in many European countries, we are past “peak resource consumption,” it’s also clear that huge quantities of resources are still being used to build our homes and infrastructure, generate power, produce food, and manufacture the vast array of consumer goods we enjoy today.  This level of consumption is dangerous enough, but with estimates suggesting that 99% of all we consume being discarded within six months of purchase, it’s a level of wastefulness the planet can ill afford.

For decades, our society has revolved around what could be described as a linear economy that is built upon extracting resources, manufacturing products from those resources, and then selling them to people, before eventually disposing of them when we no longer need them.  

“The most challenging aspect of implementing the circular economy is incentivizing and creating the intermediary manufacturers willing to take the risk to recycle and reprocess difficult-to-recycle materials,” says Katerva expert Taryn Mead, Lecturer and Product Track Coordinator, Outdoor Industry MBA. Western Colorado University.  “In our rural community in the Intermountain West, the county is having difficulty finding markets to sell our recyclables and programs that incentivize entrepreneurship for end-users are still finding it difficult to get materials reprocessed in a cost-effective way at a regional scale.  It’s those intermediaries that need to be supported if the circular economy is to gain traction.”

The coronavirus pandemic has not only tipped so many aspects of life upside down, but it has also prompted us to rethink many of the orthodoxies that were taken for granted as “how life should be”, and allowed us to think afresh about how we can reshape life after the pandemic to be fairer and greener.  Indeed, a major part of the European Commission’s proposed economic recovery plan was to create a greener society.  This included a specific wish for a more circular economy that helps both to clean up our environment and also tap into some of the huge value of the resources currently confined to landfills around the world.

A truly circular economy

The concept behind the circular economy is disarmingly simple: to make better use of resources, whilst closing loops in resource flows by recovering and reusing materials rather than wasting them, whilst at the same time removing waste courtesy of better design that allows for products to be used for longer.  This typically involves one of three main strategies:

    1. Reclaiming energy from waste – this is a common strategy used throughout the world, and involves replacing landfill with energy generating waste management facilities.  In the UK, for instance, it’s estimated that nearly half of the 26 million tonnes of waste produced per year is used to generate energy.  While there is obvious merit in this approach, it does nonetheless mean that everything that has been invested in this material is thus lost.  It also produces relatively few jobs, but as it’s often the path of least resistance, it remains enduringly popular, despite accusations that it’s an approach that scarcely differs from the linear economy.

 

  • A recycling-based approach – The next step up the value chain is a model that’s based around recycling of materials.  Around the world, recycling rates have grown, but there are worrying signs of stagnation in these rates in recent years, especially for materials such as textiles, where the fast fashion industry has created a plentiful supply of waste that seldom gets recycled.  What is recycled is typically reused for lower-value applications, such as carpets, rather than clothing, with new clothes rarely containing more than a few percent of recycled material.  While this approach does reclaim materials, it doesn’t force people to reconsider their purchasing behaviors, but would require greater changes from manufacturers and waste management companies.
  • A truly circular economy – To achieve true and sustainable circular economies will require all stakeholders in the process to change in unison.  It would require changes to the design of our products so they not only last longer but can easily be repaired or reused.  It would also require consumers to purchase more responsibly so that we’re buying less often and using what we do buy for longer.

 

Such a circular economy would inevitably present new business models, such as in the various sharing economy platforms that allow consumers to rent clothes.  It’s estimated that business models that are based upon the ethos of reuse, repair, and remanufacturing could generate up to four times more jobs than those based around waste treatment and recycling.

There is undoubtedly a desire for the post-Covid world to be greener and more sustainable than the one that preceded it, but equally, given the huge economic strain the world has been placed under by the pandemic, we could be encouraged to cut corners and look for quick fixes rather than sustainable ones.  It feels like a pivotal moment in modern history.  Hopefully, mankind makes the right choice.

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