Towards A Circular Economy: Beyond Recycling
The rallying call for action to reduce plastic pollution and the effects of climate change is resonating across the world. As a population, we must reflect on how we got to this point and focus on solutions.
Economic progress has led to the alarming depletion of natural resources and the worsening of environmental pollution problems. This is further exacerbated by the exponential human population growth which is expected to reach eight billion by 2050. Experts estimate that the human demands on our ecosystem are at least 75% more than nature can generate. This is not sustainable. As a result, policymakers, financial institutions, businesses and individuals are reevaluating and reinventing the way they operate and how they make and use goods and services so that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.
It is argued that the mindset of make, use and dispose’ associated with today’s linear economy significantly contributed to the resource and environmental problems we face. This economic model which relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy for activities such as manufacturing continues to drain resources and produces high volumes of waste, most notably, plastic waste. Over the years, various measures have been undertaken to reduce the amount of resources and energy consumed but this has not gone far enough to ensure the continuous supply of resource stocks and, eliminate waste.
As we became increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of our actions and the limited supply of resources and energy that is not always easily obtainable, we saw a shift towards the recycling economy system of ‘make, use, recycle and dispose’. The recycling economy aims to minimize the damage of waste and implies a system where all low-value, single-use materials can be recycled effectively in the long term. Given that recycling works with a limited range of products (such as paper, some metals and plastics), it has not had a significant impact on material usage, consumption patterns or business thinking. In addition, the process of recycling does not necessarily facilitate a better flow of resources through the economy as a whole. In fact, it can produce a large amount of pollution depending on the process as in most cases, recycling is ‘down-cycling’. One rarely recycles a product into the same kind of product. For example, plastics from recycled packaging is not usually re-used because the inseparable mix of materials used is quite dangerous. Although recycling is sometimes necessary, it is not the most economically beneficial action.
One logical and viable solution advanced to protect the environment and counteract the depletion of resources is the circular economy system. This ‘make, use, return/recycle’ economic model transcends the recycling model. It is not only about waste management but also about resource management.
The circular economy has the potential to create new green industries and jobs, reduce the dependence on imported raw materials, avoid environmental damage, lower pollution, reduce business costs, increase resource security, drive innovation and turn waste into profit. This system provides new solutions and business opportunities that promote the eco-design of products, improves efficiency, recycling, sharing and recovery. Rather than waiting for products to be collected as in the recycle economy, this system emphasizes proper planning from the early design phase to extend the life of the product thereby limiting waste production. For example, designing products that can facilitate repair and maintenance and extend the life of consumer goods such as cellphones, washing machines and televisions.
Circular business models, products and processes can transform businesses into smart, efficient, forward-looking and zero-waste organisations. This means companies must evaluate their product design, material selection and manufacturing processes to ensure that the final products are reusable and waste can be re-engineered. Businesses must also review their standards and operations.
No single individual, company or institution can make the circular economy work. It requires coherent dialogue and interactions between various stakeholders across the value chain and ecosystems. While businesses have the power to influence consumer lifestyles and choices, individuals must become responsible consumers. A small change in our habits can have a tremendous impact. Activities such as not using plastic straws, planting trees, using reusable and biodegradable shopping bags can make a big difference.
Governments and financial institutions also have a crucial role in transitioning to a circular economy. For example, Caribbean governments could take a regional standardized approach towards practising the principles of a circular economy taking into consideration the metabolism of their local materials and perhaps develop a road map setting priorities for transformation across sectors. They need to revisit their strategies and regulations to move beyond legislative bans, recycling and solid waste management and offer incentives to attract businesses into the mainstream circular economy. Financial institutions need to find solutions to support their customers in the transition process, commit to growing their sustainable business portfolio and integrating circular economy concepts into their own business and lead by example.
A change in our destructive lifestyles is paramount. Adopting measures that reduce the exploitation of raw materials and the consumption of energy, water, mineral and other natural resources while implementing eco-technologies and recycling techniques is essential. This requires a paradigm shift in how we ‘rethink, redesign, repair, redistribute, reuse, recycle and recover energy’.
For more articles on sustainability and social engagement in the Caribbean, read our latest issue of ApaNa Magazine.
Issue 1 provides a range of technical articles covering the environment, climate change and renewable energy, corporate giving and features nonprofit organisations including CANARI, Junior Achievement Jamaica and RISE St.Lucia Inc