Can The Circular Economy Really Make The World More Sustainable?

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Imagine that 100 percent of the recyclable materials that are currently headed for landfills are captured and re-processed into new products. This dreamy vision of the future is often referred to as “the circular economy,” and we aren’t there yet. Today, most countries with robust recycling programs have reached only around a 30 percent recycling rate (34.6 percent in the United States).

But let’s say it could be done. Would it really help the world become more sustainable? Johann Fellner and his team at the Technical University of Wien in Austria are skeptical. They calculate that even if the world achieved 100 percent recycling, our total carbon footprint would be reduced by less than 1.6 percent (from 9,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per person annually to 8,856 kilograms). Considering that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “safe” scenario for 2050 requires a more than 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, this can seem like a drop in the bucket.

 

Other researchers have similar doubts about the success of the circular economy. Nancy Bocken, a professor at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, mined 10 years’ worth of press releases from 101 companies listed on the S&P 500 stock index to identify their priorities for materials management. Her research team reviewed more than 90,000 documents and counted ‘recycl-‘ (meaning: recycle, recycled, recycling, etc.) a total of 4,326 times. In contrast, terms such as ‘refurbish’ and ‘remanufactur-” appeared 392 and 80 times respectively, and ‘reduce waste’ and ‘material reduction’ had counts of 126 and 3. Clearly, the corporate world has chosen to approach the “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy in the reverse direction.

Both of these studies were released in a June 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Industrial Ecology entitled “Exploring the Circular Economy.” The issue contains 25 articles written by university and institute-based researchers from around the world. Bocken, who also served as editor of the issue, writes in the introduction that the compilation was motivated by a need to develop standard language and metrics around the circular economy, to prevent its further co-option as a buzzword.

At least two clear messages emerge from “Exploring the Circular Economy.” First, there is a need to undertake a serious examination of the validity of the circular economy as a framework that contributes to global sustainability. Many authors point to the hidden realities of recycling, material efficiency, and other concepts that people have been trained to think of as contributing to sustainability. These include the “rebound effect” and the importance of social dynamics, such as the cultural value of resources and materials. Second, the current performance of “circularity” is poor, and it will not get better without an emphasis on shrinking and slowing material loops, rather than simply closing them.

Read more from John Mulrow, PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, specializing in industrial byproducts and sustainability metrics. He is a former Worldwatch Institute research fellow. Posted in the August 2017 issue on the Worldwatch Institute blog: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/circular-economy-sustainable/


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