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What a sustainable circular economy would look like

Post-coronavirus, the world requires a truly circular economy to deliver long-term sustainable benefits, writes Anne Velenturf and Phil Purnell from the University of Leeds.

More than100 billion tonnesof materials entered the global economy in 2017 to generate power, build infrastructure and homes, produce food, and provide consumer goods such as clothes and phones. There are nowmore phones than peopleon the planet, and the amount of clothes purchased is forecast to reachmore than 92 million tonnes by 2030.

Some estimates suggest that99% of the thingspeople buy is discarded within six months of purchasing without the material being recovered. Thats because we have what you might call alinear economy. It works by extracting resources and manufacturing products from them, that are sold to people and then generally disposed of after a short period of use.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal economic activity, dipping the global economy into what may become the worst economic downturnsince the Great Depression. Rather than try to revive a system thats inherently wasteful, the European Commission has vowed tobuild a sustainable circular economypost-pandemic.

A sustainable circular economy in which production and consumption are optimised and embedded in the natural environment.Anne Velenturf,Author provided

Theideaof a circular economy is simple: to make better use of resources, close loops of resource flows by fully recovering materials instead of wasting them, and prevent waste and pollution by better design of products and materials and keeping them in use for longer.

Sounds great, but how might it work? Ourresearch programmesupported the implementation of a circular economy in the UK and we discovered thatthree broad types exist.

Closing loops with energy from waste

The first strategy to close loops of material flows is energy from waste (EfW) burning discarded material to generate electricity. This has replaced landfill as the main processing method for household waste in the UK. Local authorities in the UK collect26 million tonnesof waste per year, of which 11 million tonnes goes to EfW while three million tonnes ends up in landfill. Between three to six times more waste plastic, food and textiles go to EfW than are recycled. One and a half times more paper and card go to recycling as go to EfW.

The shift from landfill to energy from waste (million tonnes per year).DEFRA and WRAP/Phil Purnell,Author provided

Burning materials that could be recycled means everything invested in them is lost, such as money, energy, water and labour. Materials such as nutrients in food and fibres in textiles are then replaced by virgin resources, perpetuating theunsustainable impactsof resource extraction.

Although a recentinquirysuggests EfW may have some social benefits like providingheatto fuel-poor households itcreates fewer jobsthan recycling, reuse, repair and remanufacturing andreleases greenhouse gases.

But investment in the UKfavours EfW. Its the path of least resistance, requiring hardly any changes to supply chains or how goods are consumed and disposed of. The UK is practically heading for this pseudo circular economy that is effectively unchanged from the linear take-make-waste model, fitting in with the prevailing short-term economic thinking and a singular focus on GDP growth.

A circular economy based on recycling

One step up from EfW is the recovery of materials recycling. In England, the volumes of municipal waste and the proportion that iscollected for recyclinghas remained more or less unchanged (42%) for the past ten years. Some recycling rates have gone up (eg. from 5% to 11% for food) but others have dropped (56% to 53% for paper and card).

Changes in recycling rates for materials collected by local authorities.DEFRA and WRAP/Phil Purnell,Author provided

Textiles are particularly poor. The average UK citizen buys26.7 kg of clothingannually the most in Europe and one million tonnes are discarded each year in England. Most binned clothes are incinerated, and increasingly less are recycled (from 17% to 11% since 2010). The recovered fibres are normally suitable only for lower-value applications, such as carpets and insulation. New clothes rarely contain more than a few percent of recycled material, sustaining demand for virgin natural resources.

In a circular economy that relies on recycling to close loops, people arent forced to change how much stuff they buy, but manufacturers and waste management companies would change more radically. For example, drinks bottles often use different plastics for the body, cap and label. If these mix in the recycling process they reduce the quality of the recycled material, but separating them is awkward. All products should beredesigned to ensure they are recyclable.

Manufacturers shoulduse more recycled materialin new products too, creating markets for recovered materials. Massive investment in recycling infrastructure would be required though. Just to meet plastic packaging recycling targets, more than50 new recycling plantswould be needed in England.

Although recycling normally isless energy-intensivethan processing virgin resources, it still uses a lot of energy which produces carbon emissions. Even if all recycling usedrenewable energy, the new infrastructure would require vast amounts of virgin materials to be built. In developed countries thetotal amount of materialswithin the economy has to be reduced.

A sustainable circular economy

To achieve a truly sustainable circular economy, consumption and production practices wouldneed to change together. Asustainable circular economyinvolves designing and promoting products that last and that can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. This retains the functional value of products, rather than just recovering the energy or materials they contain and continuously making products anew.

We have to do more with less material and consume responsibly. For example, people in the UK shouldbuy fewer new clothesand wear what they already havemore often. Repairing andrestylingour favourite clothes can also help to use them more and waste less.

New ways of consuming opens up opportunities for circular economybusiness models, such as leasing clothes and producing things that people needon demandonly. Business models based on reuse, leasing, repair and remanufacturing could generatefour times more jobsthan waste treatment, disposal and recycling. They generate local economic activity, helping to strengthen relations within communities.

The transition towards an increasingly sustainable circular economy radically changes the purpose of the economy.Anne Velenturf,Author provided

A sustainable circular economy represents a new economic model in whichthe aim shifts from narrow GDP growth to ‘multi-dimensional progress’ the broader strengthening of environmental quality, human well-being and economic prosperityfor current and future generations. Only such a circular economy could potentiallyregenerate the environment.

How we use resources has transformed our economy and society in thepast. A circular economy offers us a chance to deliver sustainable benefits for the future. Lets not waste it.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original articlehere.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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