What a sustainable circular economy would look like

In 2019, more than 100 billion tons of materials entered the world economy to generate electricity, build infrastructure and houses, manufacture food, and supply consumer products such as clothing and phones. There are currently more phones on the planet than humans, and by 2030, the volume of clothes bought is estimated to hit more than 92 million tonnes.

Some figures say that within six months of buying, 99 percent of the items people purchase are discarded without the content being recovered. That's because what you might call a linear economy is what we have. It operates by extracting energy from them and generating goods that are sold to individuals and then, after a limited period of use, usually disposed of.

Yet normal economic activity has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, dipping the global economy into what could become the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Instead of attempting to restore a framework that is fundamentally inefficient, the European Commission has pledged to create a post-pandemic sustainable circular economy.

The concept of a circular economy is simple: to make better use of resources, close resource flow loops by completely recovering materials rather than wasting them, and by better designing goods and materials and keeping them in use for longer, to avoid waste and pollution.

1. Closing loops with energy from waste

Energy from waste (EfW)-burning recycled material to produce electricity is the first method to "close" loops of material flows. This has replaced landfill as the UK's primary method of processing household waste. 26 million tonnes of waste are produced annually by local authorities in the United Kingdom, of which 11 million tonnes go to EfW, while three million tonnes end up in landfills. About 3 and 6 times more plastic, food and textile waste goes to EfW than is recycled. As with EfW, one and a half times more paper and cards go to recycling.

Burning materials that could be recycled means that everything invested in them, such as cash, energy , water and labor, is lost. Materials such as food nutrients and clothing fibres are then replaced with virgin materials, perpetuating the unsustainable results of the exploitation of resources.

While a recent investigation indicates that EfW can have some social benefits, such as supplying heat to low-fuel households, it generates less jobs than recycling , reusing, restoring and remanufacturing and releasing greenhouse gases.

2. A circular economy based on recycling

The retrieval of materials-recycling is one step up from EfW. In England, for the past ten years, municipal waste volumes and the proportion collected for recycling have remained more or less constant (42 percent). Some recycling rates have gone up (e.g. from 5% to 11% for food) but others have declined (56% to 53% for paper and card).

In particular, textiles are bad. 26.7 kg of clothing is bought annually by the average person, the most in Europe, and one million tonnes are discarded in England each year. Most binned clothes (from 17% to 11% since 2010) are incinerated and less and less recycled. The recovered fibres are usually only suitable for applications of lower value, such as carpets and insulation. More than a few percent of recycled material is rarely contained in new clothing, sustaining the market for virgin natural resources.

People are not required to adjust how much stuff they buy in a circular economy that relies on recycling to close loops, but producers and waste management firms can change more drastically. Beverage bottles, for example, also use different plastics for the body, cap and label. If they mix in the recycling process, the consistency of the recycled material is decreased, but it is uncomfortable to separate them. To ensure they are recyclable, all items should be revamped.

In new products , manufacturers can also use more recycled materials, building opportunities for reclaimed materials. Significant investment in recycling facilities, however, will be appropriate. More than 50 new recycling plants will be needed worldwide just to meet plastic packaging recycling targets.

While recycling is generally less energy-intensive than the processing of virgin resources, it still uses a great deal of carbon-emitting energy. Even if renewable energy was used for all recycling, the new infrastructure would entail the creation of large quantities of virgin materials. The overall quantity of materials in the economy must be decreased in developing countries.

3. A sustainable circular economy

Consumption and development patterns will have to shift together in order to attain a fully sustainable circular economy. The production and marketing of goods that last and can be reused, repaired and remanufactured includes a sustainable circular economy. Instead of only recovering the resources or materials they contain and constantly re-making goods, this preserves the usable nature of products.

New ways of consuming open up opportunities for business models of the circular economy, such as leasing clothes and manufacturing stuff that people only need on demand. Reuse, leasing, repair and remanufacturing related business models could create four times more jobs than waste management, disposal and recycling. Local economic activity is developed, helping to improve connections within communities.