Circular economy = Donut economy?

by Eve Morelli, 02.12.2021
Climate change, biodiversity losses and pollution are all linked to unsustainable production and consumption. After decades of massive production, is it time for a shift of paradigm: from a take-make-disposal economy to a circular economy?

Related SDGs

The idea of sustainable forest management was raised in Europe during the 17th century. In 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz published Sylvicultura Oeconomica, in which he pleaded for a sustainable management forest in Saxony and proposed that in the future only as much timber should be harvested as regrows over the same period of time. By adopting this approach, he wanted to ensure that the next generations could enjoy the forests, as essential resources for them. This concern is very simple and still very relevant. What should we do now, 3 centuries later, to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns according to the Sustainable Development Goal 12? After decades of massive production, is it time for a shift of paradigm: from a take-make-disposal economy to a circular economy?

Climate change, biodiversity losses and pollution are all linked to unsustainable production and consumption. The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development launched by the United Nations in 2015 sets 17 Sustainable Development Goals and targets. As 2030 is almost knocking at our door, the time has come to wake up and change our patterns towards sustainable production and consumption. We need to address SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

Since the 1970s, we speak about the 3R(Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) approach. This 3R-concept is now the basis of “circular economy”, which characterizes a new economic model. Indeed, scarcity of natural resources and new social standards force many industries to reconsider their practices. Using fewer natural resources through the optimization of the production processes, limiting pollution and waste are necessary but these changes have also proven to be a tremendous source of innovations and opportunities.

What are the principles of a circular economy?

  1. Minimization of waste and pollution
  2. Extension of the useful life of products and materials (reuse, repair and remanufacture products and materials)
  3. Regeneration of natural systems: by creating the conditions to regenerate natural systems.

A circular economy involves sharing, leasing, reusing, recycling and repairing existing materials to minimize waste, pollution and biodiversity loss. It favors the use of renewable resources versus non-renewable resources. In that sense, the circular economy connects many SDGs together. This is a new way of thinking about our economy, where reuse and regeneration are key.

What is the actual stand?

  • Data from the United Nations indicate a rise of almost 40% in the global material footprint per capita, from 8.8 metric tons in 2000 to 12.2 metric tons in 2017.
  • E-waste is a big challenge since it is expected to grow by 0.16 kg per capita annually to reach 9kg per capita in 2030, while less than 25% of the e-waste is recycled.
  • Food waste is another big challenge and although limited data is available, as of 2016, almost 14% of food produced globally was lost before reaching the retail sector. Estimates vary across regions, from 20.7% in Central and Southern Asia to 5.8% in Australia and New Zealand.
  • As you read this article, millions of plastic bottles are being purchased (1 million every minute). And each year, 5 trillion of single-use plastic bags are thrown away.
  • Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we would need almost 3 planets to provide enough natural resources to sustain our current lifestyles.

What needs to be done to rethink our economy?

Each of us can act now! You can do your grocery shopping with reusable shopping bags. Yes, sometimes you may be speechless when your local market handler packs your organic salad in a plastic bag (this happened to me!) but next time you will dare to politely say “no, thank you”. There are many small things you can easily implement in your daily life. I doubt that my plastic bag action will be enough. Nevertheless, all of us can have an impact and I like to believe the adage “united we stand”. Through our lifestyle, our eating, shopping and recycling habits, we all can have an impact.

Sustainable consumption and production are all about doing more and better with less. This is about decoupling economic growth from environmental damage, increasing resource efficiency and promoting sustainable lifestyles. This requires a radical change of attitudes and mentalities. The current pandemic crisis offers countries an opportunity to build recovery plans that can include the considerations of a circular economy.

Let’s hope they will take this chance to implement a fundamental change towards a more sustainable economy. Policies also must be adopted and put in place. Even though the way to go is still long, there are signs of hope: as of December 2020, 40 countries and territories had reported on sustainable public procurement policies and action plans.

Environmental resources are the basis for social development. Our society relies on natural resources, starting with the 2 liters of water, every human needs daily to survive. With her “Doughnut Economics”, Kate Raworth prompts us to reconsider our economy. She describes a prosperous economy as an economy where all social foundations (Food security, Health, Education, Income and work, Peace and justice, Political voice, Social equity, Gender equality, Housing, Networks, Energy, Water) are met without overshooting any of the ecological ceilings (climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, freshwater withdrawals, land conversion, biodiversity loss, air pollution, ozone layer).

Moreover, she points out that in our economies, the value of everything is monitored through its price or cost. However, most pollution and waste are still generated for free, and their cost is not included in our economic systems. So, we are missing something here! This should encourage us to reimagine the shape of economic progress. Could we be the first-generation bringing humanity back at the center of our (doughnut) economy? Today we are sadly witnessing the first hunger due to climate change in Madagascar, where 500,000 children are suffering from malnutrition. Is that economic progress?

We, at radicant, encourage you to think about what economic progress means to you. Humans have unlimited needs, but our planet is limited, and we cannot continuously push its boundaries. Those limits must be reflected in our consumption and production patterns. It is more than time to act and take all dimensions into account. Help us to reshape our economy and reach SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production)! What action will you start with?

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