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Science, Technology
& Innovation

The Circular Economy Is Not Optional

think-06-02-The Circular Economy is Not Optional-Featured Image

Lately, there has been a growing segment of dire climate change-related headlines in the news. Stories like “Fire, Floods, and Power Outages: Our Climate Future Has Arrived” and “The Planet is Burning” seem to come at us daily. This shift in reporting has been a significant departure from the coverage of just a few years ago when warnings were stern, but they tended to portray the problems as something yet to arrive.

 

Part of the change seems to have been driven by movements. Groups like the Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes started by Greta Thunberg have done a great deal to raise awareness and build support for change. Meanwhile, reality has also intruded. Melting ice caps, rising seas and bleaching corals are just a few examples of the steady drumbeat.

 

Political and business leaders have started to sit up and take notice. But given the scale of our challenges, it is too early to say whether they are taking the task as seriously as they need to. So far, there have been some encouraging moves, but we are just getting started.

 

WHAT ABOUT PARIS?

Back in November 2016, world leaders ratified the Paris Agreement. It represented our collective plan of action to combat climate change. Countries made individual commitments towards reducing the greenhouse gases they generate in aiming to mitigate global warming collectively. The stated aim of the agreement is to limit the global temperature rise in this century to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” That said, the commitments would only limit warming to 3°C, so our promises are coming up far short of our aims.

 

The negotiators of the Paris Agreement foresaw this gap, so they included a mechanism to account for it. Countries would assess progress and adjust their commitments as necessary at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) meetings. It is a good plan in theory, but it seems a fraught exercise for those who have to decipher it. The disappointing outcome at the recent COP25 meeting in Madrid appears to bear this out.

 

So, what can we do if we are not parties to such negotiations? Are we relegated to being bystanders? Not at all. We have opportunities via our choices as individuals, as well as with our communities and organisations. Such decisions are where the circular economy comes into play.

 

CLOSING THE LOOP

A recent study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change, found that the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts could mitigate 55% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The rest would need to come from a mix of circular economy initiatives and technological advances.

Solo, Indonesia

Wealthier nations have long shipped their plastic waste to the developing world to be processed, but recently, some nations in Southeast Asia have begun sending the exports back to where they came from.

The research showed how the implementation of circular economy strategies in the areas of cement, aluminum, steel, plastics and food could eliminate nearly half of the remaining emissions by 2050. The report noted that doing so would have the same impact as cutting global emissions from transport down to zero.

 

Making this happen will require a collective effort that is heretofore unseen. This is where you, or really, all of us, come in. Because we tend to treat sustainability as a stand-alone department in organisations akin to a marketing or accounting group. That approach is no longer tenable. We now must make it something that is integrated throughout our businesses, governments and communities. Some may have more authority around decision-making, but all need to understand and be responsible for execution. This approach is now table stakes.

 

FROM LINEAR TO CIRCULAR

Nature works in cycles. The water cycle provides a clear example. Water evaporates into the atmosphere from oceans, lakes, and rivers, and then condenses to form clouds. The water then returns to the earth via precipitation to be stored in surface and groundwater bodies. No resources are lost. The cycle is ongoing and repeats endlessly.

 

Humanity does not work in cycles. Or at least we have not for a long time. Instead, we have been heading in the direction of take-make-waste systems since the dawn of the industrial revolution. In this model, we take resources from our environment, transform them into our products and services, and then dispose of them when they are no longer providing us with benefits. In other words, we humans create waste, something that does not otherwise exist in nature. It is time to head in a different direction.

Linear economy follows a take-make-waste system, whereas circular economy adopts a reduce-repair-recycle model

Source: Sustainability Guide

Having covered the “why,” we now need to address the “how”. Specifically, how can we make the circular economy a reality? There is no single, straightforward answer to that question. We probably have not even discovered many of the solutions we will need. That is fine. We just have to roll up our sleeves and start figuring it out.

 

WHERE CAN YOU START?

Waste is often the best place to start. For that, you need to understand the kinds of waste you are producing, as well as the estimates of volumes. You can gain this information through a variety of methods, but it is often just a matter of separating and quantifying whatever is in the bin. Once you have that data, you can look to optimise the use of your waste. The waste hierarchy can help guide your steps from there. First, can you reduce or avoid the creation of any of your waste? Next, can you recycle or compost it? If not, can you at least recover energy from it?

 

Aiming for zero waste is a noble goal, but if you want to join the circular economy, you will have to look upstream. Doing so requires you to look at your products, services and systems to gain a holistic understanding of the inputs and outputs that are part of your business. As you do, you will begin to gain an understanding of the breakout of renewable versus non-renewable resources you use. Doing so will enable you to start looking for substitutes, as well as to rethink the way that you deliver the things your customers need.

 

Once enough of us see the necessity of the circular economy and commit to making it happen, we can work together to find solutions. For now, those who are already there can help others understand the need as we work on solutions in the places where we can create change.

 

Here is the good news: there is an ever-growing community that is committed to building a better world. If you are not already part of it, please accept my invitation. We need all the help we can get.

CHRIS OESTEREICH

Chris Oestereich designs circular economy programmes that help firms create financial and environmental benefits through his company, Linear to Circular. He is currently launching Full Circle Filament, a social enterprise that will work directly with informal waste collectors to make 3D printing filament. Chris is a co-founder of the Circular Design Lab, a volunteer-led, open innovation platform that uses systemic design to foster solutions to humanity’s big challenges. He also teaches courses on social entrepreneurship, sustainability and advocacy at Thammasat University’s School of Global Studies.

JUNE 2020 | ISSUE 6

Sustainability in a Time of Crisis

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

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Stay updated on all the latest news and events