Moving beyond recycling – The Lure of the Circular Economy

Despite decades of being told to reduce waste and increase recycling, the world’s waste production woes are only increasing. What is the catalyst that can put a real dent in our rising mountains of mismanaged waste? Proponents of the circular economy approach say that things need to change everywhere, as quickly as possible.

As the COP26 summit continues, the need to find workable solutions quickly to generations-old issues is no easy task. The immediate focus has, understandably, largely fallen on the global transition from hydrocarbon-based energy production to renewables. This is the fastest route to significantly reducing global CO2 emissions and meeting the key target of limiting the world’s average temperature rise to 1.5°C temperature by the end of the century.

However, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s research predicts that transitioning to renewable energy and boosting overall energy efficiency can only address around 55% of the targeted emissions. They believe that the other 45% can come from embracing the circular economy and its principles of reducing waste through closed loop systems.

Mountains of Waste – Measuring the size of the problem

The scale of humanity’s addiction to consumption without sustainable waste management is being revealed in increasingly worrying statistics. The creation of systems of cheap production and consumption worldwide means that attempts to curb waste are always fighting an uphill battle.

Too much extraction: Currently, humans utilise 60% more resources than the planet can regenerate, every year. To maintain this imbalance, humanity would need the resources of 3 Earths by 2050.

Too much waste: Over 2 billion tonnes of waste are created annually. This may rise to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050.

Too many emissions: 45% of global CO2 emissions come from the production and consumption of food and personal products such as cars, clothes, cosmetics and electronics.

Not only is there a major imbalance between what we need and what we take, use and throw away, even the manner of our waste management is a huge contributor to the wider issues of climate change and public health. Today, only an estimated 19% of global municipal waste is recycled, repurposed or composted. This means that over 1.6 billion tonnes of waste worldwide ends up in landfill or is simply dumped in the ocean, or anywhere else.

This setup is the enabler of long-term killers such as plastic pollution, hazardous waste exposure, the spread of disease, and other assorted public health crises. Landfill sites are also generators of huge amounts of methane, which is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In 2019, the US’ landfill methane emissions were the equivalent in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to that produced by 21.6 million passenger vehicles in a year.

Closed loop design – The solid economics of tackling trash

Circular economy principles are not new, but they are gaining traction and prominence in the face of the global waste problem. A big part of why they are being endorsed more readily now is not ecological, but economical. There is a growing realisation among key industries that ‘there’s money in trash’, not just in terms of reducing operational costs by eliminating waste, but by actively capturing value from overlooked waste streams.

Adopting circular economy principles through closed loop design systems is predicted to represent a $4.5 trillion global economic opportunity by 2030. Prominent examples of how this can be achieved are changing consumption and recycling habits in fashion and electronics.

By 2030, we will reach an annual level of clothing waste reaching 148 million tonnes worldwide. Circular fashion solutions can recapture more than $500 billion in industry losses every year, according to McKinsey, while keeping millions of tonnes of clothes out of landfill.

As for e-waste, 50 million tonnes of electronic and electric goods are thrown out every year, with valuable components worth $62 billion. Creating electronic products with longer lifespans and planned reuse/repurposing paths as part of product design is essential for curbing the rise of this accelerating waste stream. Today, e-waste represents only 2% of solid wastes, but it’s responsible for 70% of the hazardous waste in landfill sites worldwide, due to the toxic and dangerous elements involved.

Recent landmarks in reducing landfill

The fight back against waste is slower than anyone hoped, but there are signs of encouragement. The realisation that whole systems of design need to change is being taken seriously, from both an environmental safeguarding perspective as well one of profit incentivisation. The following are just some of the recent breakthroughs and milestones of progress in the realisation of circular economy principles in key global industries.

Plastic Packaging: The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was launched in 2018, with signatories promising to eliminate unnecessary packaging, reuse packaging where relevant and create 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Today, companies that are part of the commitment produce 20% of the world’s plastic packaging, and hold themselves to constantly improving their sustainability standards. Coca-Cola is a leader among this group, and its universal bottle design (which makes recycling easier) represented 27% of all 2020 transactions sales for Coca-Cola Latin America.

Food packaging: The shift from single-use packaging in food and beverage products to sustainable alternatives is being helped by the highly visible nature of the problem. Food packaging is noticed by consumers, with many segments demanding more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic. In the US, new startups like DeliverZero have taken off. DeliverZero provides over 130 restaurants in New York with sturdy green polypropylene containers for food deliveries, these can be returned, washed and reused over 1,000 times. On a larger scale, Burger King is piloting reusable soda cups, while McDonald’s began serving coffee in reusable cups across UK locations this summer.

E-waste: The Middle East is fast becoming a global leader in e-waste recycling capacity and expertise. Leading companies in the region, such as Enviroserve, have seized upon the multi-billion-dollar opportunity and are creating advanced new facilities capable of reducing unwanted electronics to their base components for reuse and/or resale. Enviroserve’s newest facility boosts the company’s e-waste processing capacity by a factor of 14. It is capable of rendering 98% of an electronic device’s parts into raw materials, which are then sold to the automotive, IT and construction industries.

A circular revolution

With the eyes of the world on Glasgow this month, the issue of waste management is gaining more attention and media airtime than ever before. Accordingly, the spark of circular economy ideas are more likely than ever to meet with ready audiences and investors.