Circular Economy: How the Shift is Already In Motion
KA @ stock.adobe.com
Waste is a human invention. An invention so ingrained and naturalized that humans ignore the fact that waste must go somewhere and will have some impact in one form or fashion. “Take, make, waste” has been the unquestionable capitalist mantra, where natural resources were assumed to be infinite and subject to human desire. The linear approach has become the economic norm as modern civilizations grew, and the industrial mindset consolidated as a synonym for growth. For Kate Raworth, economist and author of Doughnut Economics, we live in “an economic era that has come to be known as the Great Acceleration, thanks to its extraordinary surge in human activity. Between 1950 and 2010, the global population almost trebled in size, and the real World GDP increased sevenfold. Worldwide, freshwater and energy use increased fourfold, and fertilizer use rose over tenfold.”
Human activity has defied many challenges and demonstrated several breakthroughs over the last few decades. From tackling cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis to providing heat and interconnecting the world through the Internet, the 20th century was marked by the introduction of heavy industrial machinery and the progress made through the use of cutting-edge technology in scientific studies. The process of automatization induced fervent excitement over the shift of goods away from how humans used to live in the past. After living through moments of decay when World War I and II drove millions of people into extreme poverty, industrial automatization seemed to be the answer to avoid economic affliction. Even so, along with the progress come severe consequences directly resulting from these achievements. Society needs to determine if these advancements were indeed necessary, or the only way, to have made such an evolutionary leap.
This noncircular economic approach contains a significant number of consequences for our environment regarding waste production and management. Every year 2.1 billion tons of municipal solid waste is generated, yet a mere 16% is recycled, and 46% is disposed of unsustainably. More specifically, over 95% of the value of plastic packaging is wasted annually, at a price tag of up to US$120 billion. We have produced around 8.3 billion tons of plastic thus far, and an estimated 10 million tons has made its way into the ocean. The consequences go far beyond the waste problems; every day, almost 40 million liters of wastewater originating from industrial complexes, agricultural sites, and municipal sewage systems, breaches rivers and other bodies of water, compromise water availability and security for communities all over the world. Humans have been applying the same linear attitude towards one of the most precious substances on Earth, damaging ecosystems along with public health.
The shift is already in motion. The circular mindset surges as a holistic and ambitious solution to a planet-centric design. A new scenario gives space to a new order: avoiding waste, keeping products and materials in use wherever possible, and facilitating the circularity of natural systems. Resource Recovery is a framework that encompasses technology solutions that profoundly apply circularity in the wastewater treatment process, recapturing limited supply fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen that pollute the water, enabling full lifecycle management of these essential substances. Also, more conscious behavior is emerging as people are researching and questioning the impacts of the products they buy. Sustainability Labels, for instance, are beginning to help support customers in trusting the products they purchase, pushing companies to adhere to environmentally-friendly practices. Circular Packaging Platforms and Remanufacturing are business models that serve consumers as well as industries, helping keep products and materials circular — incentivizing closed-loop behavior across the board. But still, the collective consciousness needs added effort and large-scale applications from the industrial sector, while governments need to catch up with the rapid environmental breakdown occurring across the globe.
What might be surprising to some is that circularity is profitable. Talking about the old continent alone, it is estimated that the circular mindset could save €600 billion annually and add €1.3 trillion in additional benefits to Europe’s economy. The financial market is also waking up, with sustainable investments around the world growing from US$13.3 trillion in 2012 to US$30.7 trillion in 2018. As for the regulatory aspect, we must confront the laissez-faire outlook and put circular policies in place. China, for instance, once the largest plastic-waste importer in the world, changed its policy and is making the world rethink recycling. Also, governments in India and South Korea are even offering tax incentives for corporations to follow sustainable practices, with room to evolve into regenerative incentives as well. Business transformation is costly; static and conservative industries limit the circular engagement, and there is little understanding of the circular benefits from a consumer’s perspective. In a complex world with interdependent and fragmented systems, circular knowledge and practices should interconnect all possible sectors. Protocols, policies, business models, and circular materials are essential elements of this potential game-changing scenario.
In order to thrive in the next century, deploying a circular mindset is a formidable yet essential challenge. Like human creations such as the pyramids, solar power panels, language, and science, the next invention must come within the reinvention of the global economy. Now, we face a climate crisis, constraining our practices and answers must be developed rapidly. Nevertheless, through the movement towards and noise being made by the circular economy, pushing ahead with technological developments and behavioral innovation is the clear message necessary in responding to a crisis of this magnitude, bringing intermittent rays of hope in our quest to sustain life on Earth.