Closing the loop to save the planet

By Phil Crawford

Circular economy diagram
Global resource consumption has passed 100 billion tonnes a year for the first time in history. While the massive size of that record is impossible to imagine, most of us can clearly see it is not sustainable. Quite simply, we’re living beyond our means.

How can we turn that around? The circular economy is a relatively new term, but it’s fairly much how the world operated before the industrial revolution 200 years ago, according to the Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative (CGRI).

The upside of what followed was improved prosperity for some people, in some parts of the world, for some time; the downside was that the twin forces of accelerated resource extraction and consumer demand were unleashed worldwide, driving forward a new model of take-make-waste.

Basically, the circular economy model aims to extract maximum value from resources while in use, and then recover and reuse those materials at the end of each service life. The circular economy is a fundamental means to achieving sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Today, the global economy is only 8.6% circular, which is actually down from 9.1% two years ago, according to the CGRI report for 2020. It says the global circularity gap is widening due to three related, underlying trends: high rates of extraction; ongoing stock build-up; plus, low levels of end-of-use processing and cycling.

On a positive note, the report notes recovery rates in parts of the world are on the increase. For example, solid waste recovery in Europe increased by an average of 11%, with countries such as Sweden, Austria and Luxembourg leading the way at more than 80%. Recycling rates have also been improving over the years, representing a growing proportion of solid waste (excluding emissions and water) that gets recycled.

However, the ever-increasing rate of material extraction means that those modest improvements in waste recycling are being overtaken by the sheer volume of virgin materials being sourced and used to fuel our growth.

As such, the report says the outlook to close the circularity gap “looks bleak under the dead hand of business as usual”. It calls for transformative change and says countries are critical facilitators of the circular economy. An initial cohort of countries has engaged with the circular agenda, ranging from individual nation states in Europe, to the giant economy of China. And, over recent years, a steady stream of new players have adopted circular economy policies and roadmaps.

From waste processing in Nigeria, to a courageous plastic ban in Rwanda, entrepreneurs, businesses and communities are working together with city officials leading the way; followed by an increasing number of countries and national governments that are shaping their strategies to support investment towards sustainable and specific circular economy agendas.

“It’s hugely disappointing that it appears the global circular economy hasn’t grown over the past year,” says James Griffin, Circular Economy Lead at the Sustainable Business Network.

In contrast he says there have been clear signs of a sea change in New Zealand moving towards the circular economy model.

“The innovations we’re seeing by businesses tackling the issues associated with plastic packaging is clearly the practical application of circular economy thinking and this is something we have emphasised via our Plastic Packaging Circular Innovation Programme. The next step for those businesses is to extend that approach across all their operations.”

James says it is encouraging to see more emphasis being put on product stewardship, where the environmental impacts of a product are minimised throughout the life-cycle including at the end of life. He describes this as a building block for a circular economy. Last year more than 200 people were involved in product stewardship workshops run by SBN. The next workshop is in Nelson on 4 March and is part of a broader campaign to increase the number of product stewardship schemes being offered in New Zealand.

“The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) is sending a clear signal that it plans to make product stewardship mandatory in some areas. MfE has also run a recent public consultation on increasing the waste levy and applying it to more landfill types which will make it more competitive for diversion opportunities.”

SBN is leading the effort to accelerate the shift to a circular economy in New Zealand. In 2017 we created the Circular Economy Accelerator to amplify our efforts to achieve our vision. Click here to find out more and get involved in circular economy projects on plastic packaging, product stewardship, office refurbishment and good food.

In our most recent SBN member survey, the circular economy was ranked at #2 in the top 10 sustainability topics by 70% or our respondents.