Some 400mn tonnes of heavy metal, toxic sludge, and industrial waste are estimated to be dumped into the world’s waterways every year, while at least 8mn tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans.
Some 1.3bn tonnes of food – about one-third of global production – is lost or wasted, while hundreds of millions of people go hungry.
The unsustainability of the linear pattern of global production and consumption has never been more obvious.
Take, make, use, dispose: For decades, this has been the standard approach to production and consumption. Companies take raw materials and transform them into products, which are purchased by consumers, who ultimately toss them out, creating waste that ends up in landfills and oceans.
Worried about climate change and environmental degradation, people are challenging the sustainability of this linear model and urging a so-called circular economy of take, make, use, reuse and reuse again and again.
The linear economy often leads to a system that is inefficient, costly and depletes natural resources. A byproduct of the linear model is material waste, which takes up space and may include contaminants, threatening biodiversity.
Trash ends up in undesirable places, too: Scientists this year reported finding microplastics in human blood for the first time, and hazards to public health remain unknown.
As a matter of fact, circular economy is more systemic and ambitious. Most recyclable products in the linear economy can only be downcycled, meaning they lose quality for each new life cycle and ultimately become waste.
A truly circular economy would involve no new material inputs at all, reducing emissions, waste and eventually costs.
There’s a flipside amid all the optimism.
Making a production cycle fully self-sufficient is virtually impossible. Some new input will always be necessary; some waste will always be created.
Critics say it’s difficult to measure the environmental impacts of a circular economy since the concept could mean anything from improving recycling systems to using technology to streamline the sharing economy.
Building a circular economy also requires high upfront costs, as organisations invest in more technology and in educating employees and consumers to adapt to new habits.
Longer term, investing in more circular, high-tech supply chains can help building a circular economy. This can mean changing to recycled materials, extending the lifecycle of a product and improving recovery at the end of its life.
Companies including SC Johnson & Son and Unilever Plc are developing refillable packages for cleaning products and laundry detergents. Siemens Gamesa is installing the first wind turbines with recyclable blades in Germany.
BlackRock runs a Circular Economy Fund that allows investors to support companies transitioning to the new model. As of August, the fund had almost $2bn assets under management.
In March, 175 nations began talks of a binding pact to end plastic pollution.
The European Union adopted a new circular economy action plan in March 2020.
The EU estimates that applying circular-economy principles comprehensively could increase its total GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030, and create around 700,000 new jobs.
China has also taken important steps in this direction. In August 2008, it became one of the first countries to pass a law aimed at promoting the circular economy.
The circular economy would decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
Encouraging longer product lives with higher usage will not happen overnight. Collaboration across the value chain and a change in mindset from consumers are required, says a Word Economic Forum report.
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