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Please mind the gap: closing the circularity gap in an increasingly linear world

Engagement Manager

While recycling infrastructure has expanded, economic growth, increased production and consumption continue to widen the gap in an increasingly linear world

We are bombarded with publicity about the waste crisis, from the images we see of the Pacific garbage patch and plastic-riddled beaches, to the rise in documentaries and news headlines.  In parallel, there has also been a rise in the understanding of the ecological effects of our consumption, from the impact of our clothes consumption, rise in legislation against single-use plastics and increase in product advertisements around recycled content.  To that effect, some may assume that we are slowly shifting towards a circular economy…

The 2022 Circularity Gap Report sheds light on the harsh reality of our consumption and waste-emitting lifestyles[1] .  In just two years, global circularity withered from 9.1% in 2018 to 8.6% in 2020. This means that over 90% of what we consume ends up being wasted; less than 10% of materials are recirculated back into the economy.  To add to this, in the last year, humans consumed over 100 billion tonnes of virgin resources, almost doubling our raw material extraction since the turn of the millennium.

The authors of Limits to Growth, a contentious publication from 1972, warned of the perils associated with endless economic growth, purporting that on the current trajectory, society would collapse by 2040.  More recent research has confirmed that we are right on track.

So, does all this imply that humanity is almost certainly destined for landfill, too?  Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom.  Some of the principles of the circular economy are starting to creep their way into public policy and commercial strategy.  China’s Circular Economy Promotion Law mandates that any new industrial policies from China’s government must meet certain criteria for meeting the circular economy.[2] EU’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes are noteworthy examples of enforcing levies in ensuring sufficient infrastructure is developed for processing and recycling certain waste streams.  One particularly successful scheme is France-based Eco Mobilier, an EPR scheme set up to address the rising tide of furniture waste in France.  Upstream, the scheme operates by supporting furniture companies to apply an ‘eco-fee’ to each piece of furniture based on the furniture’s sustainability credentials (e.g. longevity, dismantlability). This fee incentivises eco-design and, theoretically, funds the downstream infrastructure for furniture waste separation and recycling.

Voluntary schemes, such as the New Plastics Economy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and community-led schemes also play a role.  For example, the residents of the Japanese village of Kamikatsu, which made a voluntary zero-waste declaration in 2003, separate their waste into more than 45 categories.  Inhabitants are incentivised to recycle via a points-based system which reflects the economic impact of their waste.  The community achieves a recycling rate of 80%, in contrast to Japan’s national rate of 20%.

Nonetheless, are we doing enough? The answer is clearly no.  Over COP26, only one-third of nations mentioned the circular economy, of which, less than 40% included plans to train and support its implementation.  For the circular economy to operate effectively, it needs to be entrenched into the way we think; enshrined into education systems and policies, and enforced across commercial operations. Insofar as it is side-lined to the sustainability department, or restricted to voluntary projects, the ‘take-make-dispose’ mindset will continue.