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From Linear to Circular: Tackling Sustainability Challenges Through Full Life-Cycle Thinking

Monday, April 15, 2019

Isabelle Smith

Law Clerk

March 16, 2019; a young whale is found washed up on a beach in the Philippines. Autopsy reveals the whale died from “gastric shock” after ingesting 40kg of plastic rubbish including plastic bags and other disposable plastic products. Three weeks later, a pregnant sperm whale is found dead on a beach in Sardinia, Italy, more than two-thirds of her stomach filled with plastic waste.

These whales are the latest casualties of a growing worldwide plastic pollution problem.

The accumulation of plastic waste has been recorded along coasts, in offshore surface waters and, more recently, in the deepest depths of the ocean. Plastic waste, and waste more generally, is emerging not only as a serious threat to land and ocean ecosystems, but also as a management crisis.

For decades, recycling was viewed as the remedy to growing single-use consumption. Asia became a collection and processing house for the shipments of other countries’ recyclable waste, with China importing two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste at its peak in 2016. But in January 2018, China announced significant tightening of recycling import rules, including a ban on the import of various types of plastic and unsorted paper. The move left governments and waste management companies searching for alternative solutions, with stockpiles of plastics and other materials building up. Some cities have turned to burning recycling material in waste-to-energy incinerators, while others are simply sending recycling collections to landfills. 

The difficulties in recycling have amplified calls for tackling waste production at its source, and in some places change is happening, slowly. Following California, New York will become the second state to ban single-use plastic bags beginning in March 2020. These states join a number of other cities and countries such as the Netherlands, Kenya, and New Zealand who have passed similar bans. The European Parliament recently voted in favor of a ban against certain single-use plastics such as straws and plastic cutlery, which would come into effect in 2021 in all EU member states.

While measures such as these are a promising start, stopping single-use plastics is only part of the solution; problems with our linear economy remain. A take-make-waste system is incompatible with healthy ecosystems and sustainable development, particularly with a growing global population.

The United Nations (U.N.) has highlighted the decoupling of economic growth from resource use as one of the most “critical and complex challenges facing humanity today.” It is expected that by 2050, global resource use will have tripled. Sustainable consumption and production is the focus of Goal 12 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. But achieving this goal, and effectively decoupling growth from intensive resource use, will require transformative change in markets, infrastructure, and consumer and business practices.

How can this transformation be achieved? The idea of a circular economy is gaining momentum as a new way to create a thriving economy based on regenerating natural systems, designing out waste and pollution, and keeping products and materials in use.

A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design and reduces pressures on resources. By avoiding the extraction and conversion of unnecessary raw materials, and reducing energy usage, the circular economy also facilitates reduced greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report released by Circle Economy, a group supported by U.N. Environment and the Global Environment Facility, found that the circular economy is crucial to achieve climate goals under the Paris Agreement and avoid dangerous climate change.

What does a circular economy look like? Regenerative agriculture, clothes built to last, and zero emissions buildings are just some examples. Social change, innovation, and technology are key components of a circular economy. These can be supported and advanced by business leadership and investment in full life-cycle thinking and the actions of governments through legislation, regulatory change, and policy reform.

Circle Economy has outlined four priority actions required to bridge the gap from partially circular to full circularity. This includes:

  1. Translating global trends into national, regional, and commercial pathways to enable practical strategies aligned to local context, incentives, markets, and mandates;
  2. Developing decision metrics and a measurement framework to encourage goal-setting, evaluations, and peer review, followed by benchmarking and progress-tracking;
  3. Facilitating peer-to-peer learning and knowledge transfer to accelerate the international dissemination of effective circular economy policies and practices, and to grow understanding and uptake; and
  4. Building a global coalition for action that is both diverse and innovative to bring businesses, governments, NGOs, and academics together to collectively boost capacity and capability to serve societal needs better and more sustainably.

With the world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the importance of reducing human impact on the natural environment is underlined. However, the benefits of shifting to a circular economy are not only environmental. The creation and disposal of waste is costly. It has been calculated that shifting to a circular economy model could generate a USD$706 billion economic opportunity from net material cost savings, job creation, and improved economic growth.

To achieve these benefits, the principles of a circular economy need to be applied at scale through the alignment of economic, technological, and social factors. All sectors of the economy must buy in to create system-level change and mainstream the circular economy.

The environmental impact seen from our linear economy activities sends a clear signal that the time to take advantage of a circular economy is now.