Circular Economy Gears up for Greater Adoption – Enabled by tech-based Collaboration

The Earth might be a globe, but there’s currently very little that’s circular about the way its economies work. Current estimates suggest that only 8.6% of global activities today can be viewed as being truly circular – a small proportion, given the size and severity of the climate change threat and the monumental scale of global waste production.

A new analysis concludes that circular economy activities must double worldwide to put a sizeable dent in climate change. The Circularity Gap Report, from not-for-profit group Circle Economy, lays out 21 strategies that, if adopted, would keep the Earth well below a 2-degree-celsius warming trajectory while cutting emissions by 22.8 billion tonnes beyond what is achieved by current climate commitments.

What is suppressing the speed of adoption for circular economy practices?

Why is the current size of the global circular economy still so low? As climate commitments rise, as political will, economic resources and capital are marshalled to save the planet, why aren’t we seeing a speedy rise in circular economic activity?

One of the major stumbling blocks is the lack of cross-organisational integration. Too many innovative circular economy plans maintain a low adoption rate simply because key players in different industries (or even different segments within the same industry) do not collaborate sufficiently to truly capitalise on the potential of the idea. For example, the reduction of plastic waste requires players within manufacturing, retail and waste management to all be on the same page when it comes to creating a wholly circular lifecycle of a given plastic product.

Governments have their own crucial role to play, principally by formulating supportive legislation and even direct tax incentives that support circular economy practices. By working hand-in-glove with the private sector, governments can be partners in enabling the progressive, sustainable economies that are vital for our joint survival.

Making this work requires cooperation on a much grander scale. Essentially, to accelerate the circular economy, we need to draw much bigger circles.

Cooperation and smart technology needed to overcome slow adoption

The following are just some of the recent tech-based advances that are enabling cross-sector and cross-industry collaboration on circular economy activities.

  • HyperScale, announced last month, is Asia’s first waste-tech accelerator. It equips plastics and e-waste recycling start-ups with the technical expertise they need to develop scalable products, while also connecting them with the most suitable tech players and financiers to realise their sustainable business models.
  • This month, the world’s plastic waste was mapped from space for the very first time. Global Plastic Watch is a solution that integrates satellites with AI to detect plastic waste sites, anywhere in the world, that are as small as 5m2. Innovations like this are an essential part of mapping and understanding the scale and complexity of global waste issues.
  • Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin have developed a new enzyme capable of completely breaking down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic in under 24 hours. PET is currently responsible for around 12% of all manmade solid waste in the entire world.
  • May 25th saw the opening of Sharjah Waste to Energy plant, the first of its kind in the Middle East. This Beeah Energy and Masdar joint venture will divert up to 300,000 tonnes of waste from landfills annually, mitigating 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and producing 30 megawatts of low-carbon electricity.
  • Hot on the heels of Sharjah, Abu Dhabi is set to deliver a WtE facility that will be 2-3 times larger than Sharjah Waste to Energy plant. Emirates Water & Electricity Company (EWEC) and Tadweer are partnering on a new plant with a processing capacity of between 600,000 and 900,000 tonnes of waste per year.

“Make, take, waste,” must become “Reduce, reuse, recycle” before it’s too late

The global economy reached an astonishing value of $94 trillion in 2021. Therein lies both the problem and the means to solve it. The promise of endless, infinite growth espoused by the worst elements of capitalist systems has created a global wealth-generation productivity machine that both produces and consumes at dangerous unsustainable rates. Sustaining current consumption levels would require the resources of 2.3 planets by 2050. Clearly, this is not an option. The solution must arise from taking the extraordinary innovation and production power and solving the wastefulness that it created in the first place.

Realisation of the circular economy is essential to human survival, and it requires the decoupling of growth from consumption. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” has been the mantra for years, but living up to this principle currently remains out of reach for over 90% of global economic activity.

More promising predictions suggest that faster adoption is happening. The current decade is a crucial testing ground for circular economic principles, and the WEF believes that it will be possible to double global recycling to over 100 million tonnes by 2030. Technology, with its inherent ability to connect and inspire people and organisations everywhere, will remain the lubricant that greases the gears of this new global economy.