What a sustainable circular economy would look like
8th July 2020 | Recycling
More than 100 billion tonnes of 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 now more phones than people on the planet, and the amount of clothes purchased is forecast to reach more than 92 million tonnes by 2030. Some estimates suggest that 99% of the things people buy is discarded within six months of purchasing without the material being recovered. That’s because we have what you might call a linear 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 downturn since the Great Depression. Rather than try to revive a system that’s inherently wasteful, the European Commission has vowed to build a sustainable circular economy post-pandemic.
The idea of 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? Our research programme supported the implementation of a circular economy in the UK and we discovered that three broad types exist.
- Closing loops with energy from waste – the first strategy is to “close” loops of material flows is energy from wate (EfW) – burning discarded material to generate electricity.
- Circular economy based on recycling – one step up from EfW is the recovery of materials – recycling.
- A sustainable circular economy – to achieve a truly sustainable circular economy, consumption and production practices would need to change together.
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