One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and 500 billion bags are used each year. In addition, eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, threatening marine life, according to data for 2019 from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
For environmental education experts, much of the problem lies in the linear economic system, a system designed to create things and then trash them.
Large amounts of waste are produced in the processes of extracting raw materials, transportation, distribution, and manufacturing, because most consumer goods are not intended to be recycled.
Luis Lehmann, author of the book “Economía circular, el cambio de cultura” (The Circular Economy: A Cultural Change), affirms that processes are thought about on conjunction in the circular economy: material-saving production, finding ways to make waste profitable, and even considering how materials should be reused once they have performed their function.
“(In the circular economy) There will be no fundamental changes or system breakdowns, but some activities and processes will disappear (…) The most important thing to do to achieve a circular economy is to start rethinking each process and the components parts of each project, and applying new technologies,” he said during a Digital Environmental Education webinar.
According to the European Commission, the improved use of materials from primary processing could reduce extraction by up to 70%.
Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that 34% of the world’s waste is generated in high-income countries, which represent only 16% of the world’s population. It also predicts that waste production will have increased by 2050 due to rapid urbanization and population growth.
For Lehmann, circular economies will have big opportunities after the Covid-19 pandemic, as he estimates that this will drive accelerated entry into a fourth industrial revolution through technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, 5G and Nanotechnology, which he describes as “compatible” with these processes.
“They (the technologies) have the main characteristics of circular economies because their intention is to maintain the value of resources, materials, products, and services for as long as possible,” he added.
How can it boost your business?
In a circular economy, any waste generated can always be reused and made profitable in other ways, such as the use of wastewater transformed into fertilizer for crop fields or the transformation of the materials in which vegetables are sold into fertilizer for plants.
Thus, in addition to being vital to combating climate change, circular economies can help foment the reuse of resources and logistics for companies of all sizes, thereby generating both jobs and consumer benefits through lower prices.
Adriana Zacarías Farah, Regional Coordinator of Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption at UN Environment, explains that the concept of the circular economy should be understood in the same way as nature itself.
“Basically, the idea is that we have to be inspired by nature, in which there is no concept of waste. Everything that nature generates is an input or food for another organism. Think of a forest: the leaves of a tree become compost for the earth; a dead animal is eaten by another animal. Everything exists in a closed system, a system in which everything flows,” she points out.
According to the UN, a circular economy is achieved in practice through the repair, recycling, reuse, and re-manufacturing of products, something which is not as new as it seems. Zacarías remembers when returnable bottles existed: when the product they contained had been consumed, they were taken back to stores for a refund.
“This is an example of how the same company is developing a circular economy in which there is no waste,” says Zacarías Farah.
Adopting the principles of the circular economy is believed to benefit companies through substantial net savings in raw materials, and also through reduced supply risks and price volatility.
In addition, it allows them to increase motivation for continual innovation and to generate jobs, improve productivity and competitiveness, and guarantee the long-term stability of the economy.
In 2019, the World Economic Forum recognized 11 companies that were leading the way in implementing this process.
One of the companies listed was Australian firm Close the Loop, which spent more than a decade recovering printer cartridge materials and soft plastics to turn them into road-usable materials when mixed with asphalt and recycled glass.
According to company data, the equivalent of 530,000 plastic bags, 168,000 glass bottles, and the waste toner from 12,500 printer cartridges are used for every kilometer of road.
Luis Lehmann says that the circular economy helps businesses advance in a more sustainable world.
“It also creates employment opportunities in small and medium-sized companies, in areas such as the production of energy from renewable sources, the development of green infrastructures, and in sustainable construction.”