At present, the mainstream “take, make, dispose” behaviour severely threatens the livelihoods of future generations. We would require the equivalent resources provided by three earths to maintain current lifestyles if the global population reaches projected levels of 9.6 billion people by 2050. Drinking water scarcity is already affecting two thirds of the population, but will affect additional processes such as industry, manufacturing, and sanitation. Plastics revolutionized our material world, but now they are destroying our natural one. Almost 50% of all plastics are intended for single-use and only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. This plastic material lands in oceans and landfills, poisoning the ecosystems and animal life, and, eventually, humans.
In the Asia-Pacific region there is critical focus on the management of urban waste water because 80-90% of this flow into and pollutes already limited fresh water sources. There is also increasing demand for better urban water management because at least half of the Asia-Pacific population lives in ever-expanding urban areas. Accordingly, solid waste management must also be improved considerably.
For the Asia-Pacific region, getting a grip on waste management is highlighted because of the immense scale of the issues at hand, but upstream changes must be made in order to enact long-lasting sustainable behaviours. In this regard, circular economy encompasses more than just waste recovery.
In the natural world, there is a constant circular flow of materials and energy. The sun provides all energy for plants that are eaten animals eat, while all living organisms return minerals and nutrients to the earth when they die. No matter goes to waste. The circular economy replicates this with the technical products humans have developed. Reforms to manufacturing processes simplify the composition of finished products, by-products, and waste products such that everything can be repurposed with ease.
Redesigning the world’s production-consumption structure requires decoupling economic activity, with Asia-Pacific taking the lead, from continuous extraction and consumption of finite resources. This can be achieved by following three circular economy principles:
- designing out waste and pollution;
- keeping products and material in use; and
- regenerating natural systems.
Through these aims the goal is to eliminate waste by minimizing its volume while also repurposing any remnants as inputs for another process.
What are the benefits of adopting the circular economy?
By embracing a circular economy approach, societies, in turn, achieve greater resource efficiency. It is also a multi-stakeholder model; the circular economy offers holistic opportunity for economic, social, and ecological improvements. This is a win-win approach encouraging sustainable business that creates synergies across industries and actors.
For example, the savings on material costs alone are a great incentive for industry to make the circular transition. The cost of virgin materials has crept up in recent years and is expected to only increase in price and volatility in the future largely due to decreasing supply. By reduced extraction, processing and transport of raw materials business also save cost through savings from avoided energy consumption. By one estimate up to US$ 706 billion in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector could be retained by transitioning to circular supply chains. For the Asia-Pacific region, this shift would prove immensely impactful because 60 percent of the FMCG are manufactured here. In order to recover usable materials from end-of-life products enterprises are incentivized to innovate and new jobs would be created, providing alternative employment to workers who previously harvested raw materials. Favouring recovered materials over raw materials benefits the environment by reducing the demand for natural services. Land and water resources that remain undisturbed have positive spillover effects creating benefit for the local ecosystems and the general wellbeing of the surrounding communities.
What are the barriers to adopting the circular economy?
Changing the status quo is often met with hesitation and scepticism, and some general misconceptions about circular economy must also be overcome.
Myth 1: Circular economy is just a buzzword for recycling.
REALITY: The circular economy includes much more than just end-of-life processing for products. The entire supply chain is re-evaluated and reformed to minimize the inputs needed during production and the outputs created in the process. In fact, some aspects of the circular economy model are quite mature. In addition to recycling, repair business and leasing practices contribute to the circular economy and are already familiar to consumers.
Myth 2. Extending product lifespan harms business by reducing sales.
REALITY: “Business as usual”, so to say, is not compatible with a long-term outlook for a company or the planet. Given the planet’s resource constraints, businesses are already exposed to increasing risk and overhead costs as material and commodity prices are expected rise while also becoming increasingly volatile. The circular economy does not harm business but rather it changes the incentives which drive business. By accepting the circular economy process, businesses are motivated to change their practices to align with its sustainable principles.
Myth 3. Sustainable products are not accessible to all consumers.
REALITY: It is true that products advertised are often most costly upfront than their mainstream competitors. However, when full supply chains and product lifestyles are considered, discounts are passed on to consumers through secondary channels. This could include reduced energy consumption and longer product life.
Beyond the general misconceptions, there are significant institutional barriers that do exist that must be overcome in order to implement the circular economy on a widespread basis. Existing regulation and labour laws may conflict with new circular business activities. Societal and ecological benefits from circular activities are not easily quantifiable or reportable in order to communicate the greater impact. Mainstream markets do not adequately incorporate the price of externalities (both negative and positive) which ultimately sends false signals to economic actors. Moreover, there is still limited consumer demand specifically for circular economy practices.
Governments may provide the large-scale push that guides society and industry to adopt circular economy activities quicker. In the last decade, many national governments have already introduced circular economy policies into their national planning schemes. China, the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, was the first nation to pass a circular economy law, which came into effect in 2009. Now other individual nations, including Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, The Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, and the European Union actively promote circular economy policies. However, at present, the organization Circle Economy estimates that the world is only 9 percent circular, leaving much room for improvement.