What goes around comes around: how the circular economy can reduce waste and address climate change

This week, the crucial COP26 summit gets under way in Glasgow. The meeting will bring together government leaders, climate experts and campaigners with the aim of agreeing coordinated action to tackle global climate change.

The discussions will be wide-ranging, covering major themes such as deforestation, renewable power generation, and electrification of transport. But although it might not hit the headlines, there’s another issue that could play a critical role in meeting climate change goals: the circular economy.

Producing, consuming and disposing of the products we use in our everyday lives accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting those emissions means upending the conventional “take-make-consume-dispose” model of growth, and designing waste out of our economy altogether.

In advance of the COP26 meeting, The Economist magazine hosted a webinar which focused on the potential of the circular economy for emissions reduction.

The challenges of going circular

Introducing the event, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor, explained that the essence of the circular economy is about keeping materials in circulation and maintaining their utility. But how much of a Utopian dream is this, and what are the practical challenges that need to be overcome if this elegant theory is to become a reality?

In response, Federico Merlo, managing director of member relations and circular economy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, explained that, while changing business models to extend the life cycle of products would not be easy, the economic benefits of using and wasting fewer materials should drive business in the direction of the circular economy.

Jim McLelland, Sustainable Futurist at SustMeme, was concerned about possible resistance from consumers in changing their behaviour. Because many people equate consumption with ‘shopping’, they don’t consider the emissions generated during the journey of materials from design to finished product. This could result in friction in the transition to the circular economy.

But Kai Karolin Hüppe, sustainability & circular economy lead for Arthur D. Little management consultants, suggested consumers were becoming more curious about how the materials that made their products came to be in them. And once they know the impact of consumption, people can make informed buying decisions. 

She went on to explain how this is getting easier, thanks to new tools from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the Science Based Targets  initiatives, which can help to identify, measure and manage emissions throughout material life cycles. When the Kraft food company mapped out the sources of its own emissions, it discovered that over 90% were not directly generated by the business, but by indirect sources, such as suppliers and distributors.

Making plastic circular

In recent years, there has been much greater awareness about the environmental damage caused by plastic. One of the world’s biggest plastics manufacturers is Dow, and the company’s commercial vice president for packaging and specialist plastics took part in the webinar to outline how it’s addressing the issue.

Marco ten Bruggencate explained that, while Dow is taking sustainability seriously, the company needs to go much faster. Doing this means making sure the whole production process is addressed, from the way factories are powered to the use of renewable feedstocks to make bio based plastics. And now, Dow is looking at how to make plastics part of the circular economy by making sure that valuable waste is looped back into new packaging structures.

Raising awareness

Education has a vital role to play in the circular economy, and Jim McLelland highlighted an initiative that is providing the construction industry with greater understanding of sustainability issues.  The Supply Chain Sustainability School is funded by major construction contractors, and provides free access to training for suppliers and subcontractors in a range of disciplines, including common standards for sustainability. Jim noted that construction is responsible for 38% of global emissions, and a typical supply chain involves large numbers of materials and many microbusinesses in different countries and regions. The collective approach offered by The Supply Chain Sustainability School is an important contribution to a sustainable built environment.

Reversing the trend

Jim is one of the authors of the Circularity Gap Report, an annual progress report on the journey to a global circular economy. The first report, published in 2018, established that the world was only 9.1% circular. But the most recent report put the figure at 8.6% circularity.

It appears that the world is going in the wrong direction, but there are now signs that businesses are moving forward with their own ideas.

The packaging sector, for example, is exploring digital technologies that could drive a truly circular economy – such as blockchain to help with tracking material flows, and digital watermarking to enable better sorting of packaging waste.

And achieving circularity doesn’t mean a company has to completely rethink its business model. Global sportswear giant Nike was able to reduce the waste generated by one of its running shoes by 80% simply by talking to their supply chain.

Final thoughts

COP26 has been described as world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control. For all of us, the stakes could hardly be higher. Failure to limit global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius risks greater pressures on water and food supplies, increased hunger and poverty and more frequent flooding, storms and heatwaves that threaten plant, animal, and human life.

Yet if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.

Whatever the outcome of the talks in Glasgow, it should now be clear that the circular economy is a vital element in fostering low-carbon growth. And it might even tip the balance in the battle against global warming.


Further reading on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Image: The Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow: location for COP26. Photo by Stephen O’Donnell on Unsplash

‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


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The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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