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The circular economy: Sustainable solutions to solve planetary overshoot?

A farmer in Colombia checks her coffee bushes.

A farmer in Colombia checks her coffee bushes. Image by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • The current linear production and consumption economic model — labeled by critics as “take-make-waste” — is taking a heavy global environmental toll. The intensive use of primary resources and overconsumption are closely linked to climate change, biodiversity loss, large-scale pollution and land-use change.
  • Experts and advocates argue that a circular economy model — revolving around reduced material use, reuse and recycling at its simplest — offers a potential route to achieving zero waste, reversing environmental harm and increasing sustainability of products and supply chains.
  • In the absence of a firm definition, many interpretations of the circular economy exist. To be sustainable, circular economy solutions should be underpinned by renewable energy sources, reduction of material extraction, reduced consumption, and the regeneration of nature, according to researchers.
  • Caution is needed, warn some, as not every circular solution is sustainable. Other experts state that to achieve its goals, the circular economy must include societal level change and go far beyond simply recycling or improving supply chains. How this economic model works will also look differently for nations across the globe.

Past and current economic models have largely been linear; resources are extracted, used and then discarded. This system — often described as “take-make-waste” — is a double-edged sword: It helped build modern society but is implicated in rampant overconsumption and ecological damage, driving climate change, biodiversity loss and the pollution of land, air and oceans.

Turning the tide on this “triple crisis” is one of the core objectives of the circular economy, a concept that advocates argue is a route to creating sustainable production cycles that reduce resource use, waste and ecological harm.

“We see that if we address the way in which we decide how we produce and consume, that is going to help us affect those three underlying problems,” Elisa Tonda, head of the consumption and production unit at the United Nations Environment Program explains.

At its simplest, experts say the circular economy revolves around reducing, reusing and recycling materials (known as the three R’s) — turning the cradle-to-grave linear economic model of production and consumption into a never-ending closed circle of renewal. In doing so, the circular economy model aims to eliminate waste and pollution, recirculate products and materials and regenerate nature, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

A rainbow over trees.
The circular economy can take many forms, involving the redesign of products and supply chains, reducing primary material consumption and more. At its core, it revolves around the “three R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle. But these can also be expanded to include “refuse,” “repair,” “refurbish,” “remanufacture,” and “repurpose,“; processes intended to increase sustainability at many levels. Image by Aris Sanjaya/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Straight off an existential cliff, or perpetual renewal?

Earlier this year, a report by Circle Economy estimated that the global economy today is just 7.2% circular, down from 9.1% in 2018. “In the six years of the Circularity Gap Report, the global economy extracted and used more [resources] than in the entire 20th century,” the authors write. That percentage adds up to the human population consuming more than 100 billion tons of material each year, a figure set to increase substantially in coming years under the current business-as-usual scenario.

“We are unfortunately not moving in the right direction when it comes to increasing our share of secondary material consumption in the global economy,” Álvaro Conde, a researcher with Circle Economy and co-author of the report, tells Mongabay in an interview. “There’s a clear negative trend: The total amount of material resources the global economy is using is accelerating every year.”

This acceleration is driving climate change, decimating biodiversity, destroying forests and polluting the planet with synthetic chemicals, including plastics. The linear economy is also catapulting us toward an existential cliff: We are rapidly transgressing environmental thresholds that some scientists have identified as planetary boundaries — the violation of which could destabilize Earth’s fundamental operating systems that support life.

These nine boundaries identified by science comprise climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol pollution, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, land-system change and release of novel chemicals — at least six of the nine are in the process of being overshot. All nine can be clearly linked to linear economy practices.

Threads in textile production.
Fundamentally, “We know what has to change in order to reverse the overshoot of the ecological ceiling,” says Circle Economy’s Álvaro Conde. “Reducing the material footprint of the global economy is a key lever for bringing societies worldwide within [safe] planetary boundaries.” Current textile production and practices — overuse of water and pesticides to grow cotton in semiarid areas, the use of toxic dyes and other chemicals in processing, and the waste inherent in fast fashion practices, for example — contribute to extensive environmental harm. Circular solutions could help reduce these impacts across the whole supply chain. Image by Dave Gingrich via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Plastic is a major contributor to pollution on land, sea, and even the atmosphere
Plastic is a major contributor to pollution on land sea and even in the atmosphere, impacting ecosystems to an as yet uncertain degree. Some experts argue that applying the circular economy model to the plastics problem provides a route to redesign, eliminate single-use and reuse plastics as potential solutions. Replacing petrochemical-based plastics with bioplastics “stand to contribute to more sustainable commercial plastic life cycles,” according to one study. Image by Srikanth Mannepuri / Ocean Image Bank.

That’s where the circular economy comes in as a solution, say experts. According to the Circularity Gap Report, a global circular economy could meet humanity’s needs with only 70% of the materials presently used, keeping the world within the safe guardrails of the nine planetary boundaries.

“The important thing about the circular economy is that it’s a systemic approach to how we address the material impacts of our consumption of stuff,” says Jack Barrie, a circular economy expert with Chatham House, a U.K.-based independent research group. “If we can tackle the stuff that we consume, we can thereby tackle multiple of the planetary boundaries.”

Barrie cites efforts to combat climate change as an example. Switching to 100% renewable energy, he says, would only reduce emissions by about half, whereas the other half is produced via “heavy industrial processes and other means.” A holistic approach to reduce emissions from energy and “stuff” is therefore needed.

Embracing the circular economy has the advantage of “addressing key areas that other traditional strategies to tackle environmental remediation have failed to do because [those past approaches] focus on one particular area,” he says. “Whereas the circular economy looks across the whole consumption and production value chain and then seeks to reduce pressures” on the Earth.

Zeroing in on just one industry sector as an example, global textile production emits an estimated 1.2 billion tons of CO2 annually, contributes to land-use change, stresses freshwater supplies and creates an enormous waste burden, including microplastics.

Applying a circular economy model to the textile problem requires the altering of agricultural practices, designing out harmful products and replacing them with natural materials, increasing product durability and ramping up recycling and upcycling as part of a new textiles circular economy; these practices could greatly reduce the industry’s environmental and social impacts. Recycling fast fashion alone could eliminate a rising mountain of discarded clothing choking emerging economies.

Global transport and mobility is another key sector where the circular economy can reap environmental rewards.
Global transport and mobility is another key sector where the circular economy can reap environmental rewards. For some experts this not only involves reducing resource consumption and pollution, improving sustainability of individual modes of transport (such as cars), but also taking a holistic approach to improve public transport networks to tackle global carbon emissions. Image by O.Taillon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
A pile of timber.
Replacing nonrenewable resources with biobased solutions, such as timber in the construction sector, is an important element of developing a biobased circular economy. But this particular solution comes with caveats, say experts, as it can place greater pressure on natural forests and biodiversity if not practiced in an environmentally conscious way. Image by Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha” via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The pillars of a circular economy

The circular concept is not new; its modern origins date back to the 1970s, while circular systems have been practiced for centuries by communities around the world, says Barrie. The challenge today, however, is that in the absence of a firm definition, the circular economy designation has become a broad church, a catchall expression expanded to fit more and more beneath its umbrella. This, for some experts, is a thorny issue.

“The majority of circular economy solutions typically push production or consumption to be more sustainable from the planetary boundaries point of view,” Enni Ruokamo, a researcher with the Finnish Environment Institute explains, but adds that all that is circular is not necessarily sustainable.

To be sustainable, experts stress that decarbonization — the use of renewable energy to power circular solutions — is fundamental. Barrie also includes the regeneration of ecosystems and nature in his strict definition, particularly when applied to agricultural systems. Another key element, say some, is the mimicking of natural world processes, keeping waste to a bare minimum.

Another pillar of the circular economy is the development of a “bioeconomy,” says Conde; utilizing natural and renewable resources wherever possible. “A sustainable and circular bioeconomy would keep resources at their highest value for as long as possible through cascading biomass use and recycling, while ensuring that natural capital is preserved,” according to a report by the European Environment Agency.

An agricultural field.
Current linear food systems exact a heavy environmental toll. Applying circularity and introducing regenerative agricultural practices could lessen this impact and free up land for other purposes, such as rewilding, according to experts. A large-scale circular shift in food production could halt and reverse global biodiversity loss by 2050, according to Sifra. Image by Global Water Forum via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“A more circular economy is also one where biomass accounts for a major share of material throughput,” Conde says. But it’s also crucial that this share stays within the planetary boundaries framework, without adding environmental stress.

Within even these tight standards hide opportunities for nations and industries to cheat, passing off unsustainable solutions as circular. For example, retooling coal power plants to burn forest biomass to make energy is touted as being carbon neutral by the forestry industry, EU, U.K., Japan and other countries because trees can be regrown, making it seem a good fit with the circular economy definition. But the decades needed to grow a tree and achieve carbon neutrality, along with serious deforestation and biodiversity loss, show that biomass burning as now practiced is not truly circular.

Experts also strongly agree that the circular economy is not a system based solely on recycling. “While it is useful to consider recycling, the way in which we see the circular economy is something that needs to happen much earlier in the production process,” says UNEP’s Tonda.

It’s about taking a holistic approach to how products are sourced and designed, keeping reuse in mind. Building on the so-called “three R’s,” experts emphasize that loops should not only be closed via resource reuse and waste reduction, but also narrowed. This requires the amount of virgin materials utilized by societies to fall, with product longevity extended as just one possible route of achieving this goal.

A steel and glass building.
Cement and steel are globally important construction materials but currently carbon-intensive to produce and environmentally harmful. Designing infrastructure for reuse, increasing durability, and substituting alternative biobased materials, such as wood, are part of the package of circular solutions. However, increased wood use requires care: Studies show that enlarging tree plantations is a far more circular approach than timber cutting natural forests. Image by Pawel Grzegorz via Pixabay (Public domain).
Aluminum metal.
Aluminum is one of the world’s most widely recycled materials. Recycling is achieved with 95% less energy than virgin production. It’s estimated that by 2050, recycled aluminum could supply 50% of Europe’s demand, vastly cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But there is still vast room for improvement in the EU; the global aluminum recycling level is only around 70-75%; that results in a loss of some 7 million tons per year. “The potential impact of circularity on reducing aluminum sector emissions cannot be underestimated,” write experts at the World Economy Forum. Image by La Mary Anne via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Circularity in action

While circular economy principles can be applied to all economic sectors, shifting to circularity in just four key sectors – food and agriculture, buildings and construction, textiles and forestry – could have greater benefits in the short term, say experts like Tim Forslund with the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Focusing on those four sectors could “halt biodiversity loss, even in the next decade,” he says.

Changing agricultural practices — adopting alternative sources of protein, regenerative agriculture, farming systems such as agroforestry and vastly reducing food waste — could be a boon for biodiversity, according to a report by Sitra.

Following such practices globally could free up millions of hectares for other uses, such as rewilding, while reducing freshwater use and reliance on synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and pesticides, thus pulling humanity back from at least five planetary boundaries at the same time.

“You can reduce [livestock] feed inputs; that means that we can use fewer resources and we can use less land, which is good for biodiversity,” Forslund explains. “There’s also an element of designing out waste and pollution.”

The construction sector is another key focus area: Together, steel and cement production — the foundations of modern architecture — are responsible for enormous environmental impacts. Steel, for example, is a heavy carbon emitter, accounting for roughly one-quarter of industrial emissions, or around 7% of total global emissions, with much of the world’s construction-related carbon production still reliant on coal.

The good news: millions of tons of scrap steel are remelted and reused annually, making steel one of the most widely recycled materials globally. Despite this, production remains dominated by raw material input, with iron mines a major deforester and nature despoiler.

Experts say that ramping up steel reuse further could reduce the construction sector’s carbon and material footprint. But projections are that by 2050, around half of global steel demand will still be met by newly mined iron ore.

A herd of cows.
Applying circular economy principles to four specific sectors — food, construction, textiles and forestry — could dramatically reduce material and environmental footprints. Cattle ranching, in particular, is responsible for significant deforestation, climate change and other environmental impacts, say experts. Image by Tropical Forest Fires Watch via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Steel rods.
Steel is an example of both the success, and the as yet unachieved potential, of the circular economy, say experts. Globally, steel is one of the world’s most recycled materials. Reuse is far less carbon intensive than raw production, which still largely depends upon coal. But iron mines continue providing much newly mined ore. According to researchers at University College London, recycled steel could save “86% of greenhouse gas emissions, 85% of energy, 76% of water pollution and 40% of water consumption,” by using electric arc furnaces to refashion waste. Designing steel products for easy recycling could also reduce material extraction and the overall carbon and material footprint of the industry. Image by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay (Public domain).

Cutting back on iron mining isn’t the only means to a sustainable end; achieving circularity also relies on reducing how much steel is used. Smart home and commercial building designs and smart material use, with reuse in mind are paramount.

“We’re going to want to rethink, first of all, how steel is used within the economy and products from the very start of the process,” says Matthew Winning, a senior research fellow at University College London. “The circular part of steel is only going to increase as we go forward. But how much it increases, how much steel gets made through recycling or how much of the demand is reduced through better design — all of those questions are still quite open for interpretation.”

Global cement and concrete production emits an estimated 2.7 billion tons of CO2 per year; that’s expected to hit 3.8 billion tons by 2050, while health problems related to airborne cement particulates remain rife, especially in poorer ethnic communities where manufacture is often sited.

A host of solutions are under discussion to reduce environmental and social impacts, including increasing circularity by reusing materials, utilizing alternatives or new mixtures and trimming carbon outputs from the industry (mainly through carbon capture). Together, implementing circular economy solutions in both construction sectors could avoid or mitigate 2.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2050, according to WEF.

The overarching question, says Conde, is “how we construct houses and buildings in a way designed for longevity, durability, but also material efficiency, both from the construction practices and an energy consumption point of view.”

Windmills in the sunset.
The green energy transition will demand an enormous increase in the use of minerals and materials to create renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles. “We’re going to need roughly six times the amount of material for the energy transition,” says Ramona Liberoff, executive director of the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy. A circular economy could support recapture of minerals and materials already in use — in applications such as phones and other electronics. This could meet a swath of future material demand. Image by Markus Distelrath via Pixabay (Public domain).

One suggested circular solution: substitute more timber for carbon-intensive construction materials such as concrete or steel. But that solution, while maybe backing humanity away from climate change, if not done carefully, could impact at least two other planetary boundaries, says Ruokamo. In a study focusing on Finland, her team found that swapping out these materials could have negative impacts on land-use change and thus impact biodiversity. Their findings came with a caution: Circular solutions should be backed by science to carefully track multiple effects — a warning that can be extrapolated to other locales, she says.

“I think it is important to quantify the effects of economic activity and circular economy solutions on biodiversity,” Ruokamo says. “We need to have better monitoring and data on the effects on biodiversity and species at the habitat level.”

A recent paper by the World Resources Institute also warns that moving to “mass timber” in construction could “increase emissions for many decades” due to hikes in demand and the emissions released during production, which are typically not accounted for when assessing wood’s carbon footprint. “Overall, our review finds that the broad interest in mass timber has been based on incomplete carbon accounting that treats wood as inherently carbon-neutral,” the authors write, stating that achieving low-carbon concrete and steel remains “critical.”

A key to successful circular solutions is a best practices analysis weighing positive and negative effects on all nine planetary boundaries, while also identifying and rejecting false solutions perpetrated by industries, companies or entrepreneurs trying to avoid environmental regulation, garner government subsidies or gain eco-points with the public.

A farmer with her cattle in the Andes, Ecuador.
A farmer with her cattle in the Andes, Ecuador. If the dangerous transgression of planetary boundaries is to be avoided, circular solutions will need to be practiced not only in the Industrialized North, but in the Global South — with deep consideration given to social equity. Image by David Ceballos vis Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The circular society challenge

Though circular economy models can increase sustainability and lessen environmental harm, there are considerable tension points and challenges to be addressed. One of these is acknowledging that approaches to circularity may need to differ in practice for countries in the Global South.

Max Lascano, executive director of Fundación Paisajes Sostenibles, an environmental NGO in Ecuador, is especially concerned that in some nations, including Ecuador and elsewhere, the circular economy is focusing exclusively on recycling. “In that case, nothing will change [regarding agricultural production], unless it’s strongly orientated around decarbonizing the economy and sustainable development,” he adds. But much more needs to be done.

“Here in Ecuador, or the Global South, we should [also] try to make sure that the products we produce — like bananas, cocoa or coffee — don’t have a significant environmental impact.” These agricultural commodities for export need to be made in a circular way without being harmful to the environment, forests, water or land, he says. That means avoiding conversion of forests to croplands, reducing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, along with other best practices. “We should aim to offer the world products that are truly sustainable” along the entire supply chain.

Satellite image of a river.
A key challenge to achieving circular solutions is ensuring a “just” transition, according to some experts. In particular, this means different pathways for countries in the Global South as compared with the Global North. Those Global South strategies would focus more on traditional communities and livelihoods and on utilizing local knowledge, and achieving social and economic equity. Image by Oton Barros (DSR/OBT/INPE) via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Adriana Marotti de Mello, a researcher at Brazil’s University of São Paulo, sees the transition to a circular economy not only as a chance to achieve technological solutions or consumption reductions, but as an opportunity to accomplish “profound” change — especially regarding resource extraction and agriculture, both historically plagued by environmental problems.

“The Brazilian case is really specific. Our economy is dependent upon the extraction of natural resources; in mining and extensive agriculture for commodity exportation,” she explains. For ecologically sensitive regions such as the Amazon, founding a circular economy on Indigenous and local knowledge and practices is key in any transition, she says. “I think the circular economy would require a radical change in the way we have been growing our economy since colonial times that’s based on the exploitation of natural resources.” The inclusion of local communities, social justice and equity, along with attention to planetary boundaries, as a measure of circularity — is key.

Finding pathways suited to differing contexts is vital to a just and inclusive circular economy transition, say analysts such as Barrie, who argues that pressing global problems necessitate greater multilateral participation at the international level, all the way down to the local level.

The circular economy “is increasingly not just a discussion around industry and materials, but around moving from a circular economy to a circular society and how it can best promote prosperity and well-being as a goal,” he says. “There needs to be a much broader discussion around what a circular economy means for society, not just industry.”

Banner image: A farmer in Colombia checks her coffee bushes. Image by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

See related coverage:

We’ve crossed four of nine planetary boundaries. What does this mean?


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