Circular economy

Published February 3, 2024

A CIRCULAR economy is a model of economy which focuses on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products to ensure environmentally friendly and sustainable production and consumption. The central idea of this economic system is to keep products and materials in circulation and increase their life cycle as much as possible through reuse, repair, refurbishing, composting, and recycling to avoid waste and promote regeneration. Hence, the circular economy seeks to productively use the products again after the end of their life, thereby creating further value and sending off the traditional linear economic model.

In other words, a circular economy is based on a systems-level approach such that industrial processes and economic activities are designed to be restorative or regenerative, seeking to maintain the highest value of resources while also minimising waste through alternative designs and production and consumption approaches. The redesigning of materials and products entails less resource intensity and the use of waste as a resource to manufacture new materials and products. Thus, the circular economy incorporates the full impacts of materials and waste in a transformative manner which ensures inclusiveness and equity.

This circular economy model incentivises the reuse of products to minimise the extraction of new resources which is critical to tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. While the circular economy model is very important for the efficient use of resources and living within the safe limits of planetary boundaries, ie, the limits beyond which the environment may not be able to sustain itself, the progress is unsatisfactory, to say the least.

Recently, the Circular Economy Foundation released the Circularity Gap Report 2024, showing that global circularity has declined despite the fact that the theme of circular economy has gained a lot of traction in the mainstream. The report claims that while awareness and interest in circularity has increased, more and more resources are being extracted from the pool of natural resources, and the proportion of reuse and use of secondary materials is decreasing. The report claims that globally, the increase in the quantity of materials extracted and used has massively gone up. For example, more than half a trillion tonnes of materials were extracted and used in the past six years alone, which is roughly equal to the total use in the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the global community is not committed to or serious about the conservation of natural resources and a stable future climate, and this is stressful, to put it mildly. The recent COP28 in Dubai was a similar spectacle where several pledges were made without concrete plans of action — speeches and goals are not being translated into much-needed actions and measurable impacts. The limited progress on the circular economy means a risk to global resources and planetary boundaries, which results in violation of the key tenets of the circular economy: reduced use of material for a long time, prioritising use of regenerative materials, and recycling and refurbishing at end-of-life.

This model is important for the efficient use of resources.

Then accelerated consumption and production no longer warrant human well-being, while material extraction and a neglect of the conservation of the natural environment result in more socioeconomic disparities, creating conditions for political and social instability. This is because of the flawed development model where economic growth is fuelled by unsustainable consumption and production approaches. Hence, the global economy must adopt principles of circularity to achieve sustainable development and a resilient future, one that safeguards the real well-being of existing and future generations.

As for the solutions, economic development must consider socially just and environmentally sound approaches. This necessitates a change in the rules of the game which starts with the design and implementation of context-specific policies that minimise the carbon and ecological footprint and ensure environmental sustainability and a climate-resilient future.

There are countless problems and constraints; but, starting small in the right direction with a timeline would not hurt anyone. However, the transition to a circular economy is not a choice as the global economy is changing and so is the structure of different economic sectors as the Earth system is unable to sustain the linear economy of the past, which contributed to climate change, biodiversity loss, and mountains of waste, and was beyond the carrying capacity of Earth.

The writer has a PhD in economics from Durham University UK and works as the director of research programmes for the Social Protection Resource Centre, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2024

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