Circular economy goes around in circles

Companies, consumers need to move beyond feel-good slogans

Environment

February 27, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Circular economy goes around in circles

Each year, 1.3 billion tonnes of waste is produced, or about 200 kg of waste per person per year (MIG Photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

The latest buzzword in the corporate world has a fundamental flaw. An unchecked rise in consumption defeats even most genuine attempts at recycling and reusing. It needs companies to make products that last longer instead of making more of the same.

Every decade or so, roughly, corporate boardrooms come up with new buzzwords that are meant to define not just how the world would evolve and what the world needs, but also, more crucially how they are becoming or already have become very responsible corporate citizens despite all the challenges that they face.

Every time, millions of dollars, if not billions, are spent in tom-tomming about these buzzwords and how they as companies have adopted them and now breathe and live those words. At the end of few years, the people, the NGOs and rarely the governments, too, realise that the buzzwords were simply a smokescreen for continued avarice that has ravaged mankind and Planet Earth particularly ferociously over the last half a century or so. Then, the boardroom boys invent yet another buzzword and the cycle resumes.

One of the best places to get to know the latest buzzword is the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum that’s held each January in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos. WEF is also often, if not always, the launchpad of these creative creations. This year has been no different, even though the meeting for the first time was virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. The buzzword that dominated the zoom sessions was a circular economy.

Indeed, of late the phrase has been doing the rounds of corporate boardrooms as well as shareholder meetings and of course all the environment-focused jamborees. Stripped down to basics, a circular economy is essentially highly efficient and extensive recycling. It uses a close loop to keep using and reusing the same virgin resources for as long as it is economically and practically possible. The concept has picked up a fair amount of momentum, at least in the western economies and several events are organised to promote the concept.

The companies like talking about the circular economy as it helps them not just earn carbon credits, but also perhaps more importantly brownie points with environmental activists and of course the ecologically aware consumers.

The proponents of circular economy say that reusing primary natural resources right through their life cycle helps the environment by cutting down the demand for nonrenewable products like metals, chemicals, coal and oil. However, this concept is not truly environment friendly.

Recycling of products is in itself a very large drain on natural resources and a major cause of pollution as it involves transporting used products, sorting them and then recycling them to produce something else usable. At each stage of production and recycling, enormous amounts of energy are consumed, leaving a large carbon footprint.

Moreover, as it shows with plastics, recycling is very largely a myth as only a minute fraction of all recyclable products actually gets recycled. Each year, 1.3 billion tonnes of waste is produced, or about 200 kg of waste per person per year. This is far more than the capacity of the global recycling industry. This leads to a large chunk of waste products getting incinerated, simply put in landfills or thrown away in water bodies and oceans. Scientists say that microplastics, one of the biggest factors of pollution, are found in every corner of the world.

A large chunk of waste, from the rich countries, is also shipped out to third countries, mainly the poorest of the nations, where it is either dumped or sorted in extremely hazardous conditions. The large-scale and ever-rising wasteful consumption has led to unsustainable levels of extraction of natural resources. A report by the OECD, a rich country lobby group, says the flow of materials through acquisition, transportation, processing, manufacturing, use and disposal are already responsible for about 50 pc of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and the international resource panel of the United Nations expects the use of natural resources to more than double by the year 2050.

The keyword in a circular economy is never really talked about – cutting down production and consumption of goods and ending wasteful consumer behaviour. The production and distribution networks need to be reviewed and redesigned in order to ensure that instead of using hard-sell tactics, companies begin promoting responsible consumption and minimalistic behaviour amongst consumers.

A report in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concludes that a circular economy can actually increase overall production and thus partially or fully offset the benefits.

One of the ways to tackle wasteful consumption and promote a truly circular economy is by encouraging and incentivising consumers to fully participate in the building of a truly circular economy. This involves seemingly small sacrifices in consumer behaviour like using linen bags, glass bottles and buying loose grains and other materials, thus eliminating or at least limiting packaging, mainly plastic, of products.

This would certainly cause some degree of inconvenience to the consumers as almost the entire world has been hooked on plastic packaging for nearly three decades mainly due to the flexibility and all-pervasiveness of plastics. Here the companies need to play a lead role to convince and incentivise consumers to switch to recycled products or renewable alternatives, even if it caused them a degree of inconvenience.

But besides changing consumer behaviour patterns, the bigger challenge for the companies would be to change their own approach towards recycling and adopting a truly circular economy. Take plastics for example. Most of the manufacturers using plastics or other recyclable materials don’t put the necessary investment in creating a complete cycle with a high level of efficiencies in the conversion of plastic waste into a new product of similar quality as the original.

However, currently, most plastic products collected for recycling are shredded and reprocessed into products of much lower quality and hence meant for lower value applications. For instance, a PET bottle of Coca Cola should ideally be recycled into another Coke bottle. Instead, most of the food-grade plastics end up getting converted into plastic fibre for the manufacture of polyester carpets. Only about 2 pc of the products are recycled into something similar.

It requires a strong and well-monitored approach by the government, with a mix of carrot and stick, to push companies into making the investments needed to ensure that recycling is well-handled and leads to a significant change in approach towards a circular economy. It needs better technology for the manufacture of virgin plastic and of course for better recycling to ensure that there is no significant loss in quality of the plastic for a reasonable number of recycles to achieve a really circular economy.

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