The concept of the circular economy has been promoted for some time as a practical and straightforward solution to the imminent resource crunch. As a species, humans have long been using resources at a faster rate than the planet can replenish them. We currently consume 1.6 earths a year, an already unsustainable rate, and this is projected to rise to 2.0 earths annually by 2030 if our consumption habits continue unabated.
A circular economy is one in which, instead of being dumped in a landfill, waste re-enters the manufacturing cycle at the beginning to be re-used. At present, up to 90 per cent of raw materials used in production of consumer goods become waste before the product has even left the factory. A further 80 per cent of products are estimated to be thrown out in the first six months of their lives. These are primary causal factors in our unsustainable rates of consumption of plastic compounds and other materials.
What about recycling?
The circular economy goes far beyond traditional recycling. The latter is a welcome shift from the usual ‘extract-produce-dispose’ model, but recycling is generally energy-intensive and its processes usually downgrade materials. This fails to reduce the perpetual high demand for new raw materials. Circular economies, instead, involve a total overhaul of our industrial system with the key objective of designing waste out of the production cycle. Indeed, repairing, reusing and re-manufacturing are often less energy-intensive processes than recycling, and minimisation of energy wastage is just as important as reducing resource waste.
Research and analysis carried out by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has found that a truly circular economy is closer than ever before. Despite the disappointing figures above, WRAP estimates that around twenty per cent of the UK’s economy already functions in a circular manner.
Just over 600 million tonnes of material enter the economy, with around 115 million tonnes of this being reused, including recycled plastic. WRAP’s plan to finish the journey towards a restorative industrial system involves not only increasing the amount re-used, but also reducing the volume of material inputs, and thus a reduction in both production and consumption.
Roadmap for a circular economy
This last aim may sound almost utopian in a society based around ever-increasing levels of economic expansion. However, according to WRAP, between 2000 and 2010 the volume of materials being produced and consumed by the economy decreased by some 30 million tonnes. Despite this, GDP grew by 20 per cent within the same time period. Technological advances mean that manufacturing processes can become less wasteful, instead of consumers having to compromise their living standards through simply buying less.
The quantities of output wastage have also been reduced over the last decade, according to WRAP, with the amount of material being recycled more than doubling since 2000. Sales of recycled material, including plastic compounds, have increased by more than 300 per cent over the same period, resulting in recycling sector growth outstripping the growth rate of the wider economy. With more than £10 billion in annual sales turnover, over 30,000 jobs and £3 billion added to the economy as gross value, the recycling sector is ideally placed to lead the transition towards the circular economy envisioned by WRAP.
Image source WRAP (http://www.wrap.org.uk)