Global trends and resource scarcity
Mankind is currently consuming more resources than what the planet creates, which is destroying the ecosystems that support us, putting the needs of our future generations at risk.
The “ecological debt” of our consumption patterns is expressed through the Earth Overshoot Day. It is a date calculated every year, on which humanity as a whole has consumed more from nature than our planet can renew, and exceeds the so-called ecological budget for the year. Until 1970 this day was after Dec 31st, meaning that humanity didn’t consume more than Earth could regenerate, but in the last few decades the day has arrived sooner and sooner. In 2019 it was on July 29th – for the rest of the year we will be consuming more than we can repay; we’d need approximately 1.7 planets to meet our needs. In 2020 it was almost a month later – on August 22nd – the effect of COVID-19.
The global plastics tide
Problems related to increasing flows of plastics in the environment have reached the top of the global discussion. The extensive use of plastics has helped to improve many lives, but there are also serious downsides.
Plastics are relatively lightweight and can easily be carried by wind, water, gravity. They are resistant to biodegradation, but fragment into smaller and smaller bits which attract and absorb other pollutants and enter the food web, thereby affecting living organisms. Microplastics (coming from fragmentation of larger plastic items, but also from microbeads intentionally added to toothpastes and scrubs, or from tyres and washing of oil-based textiles like fleece) are ubiquitous and have been found in drinking water, in air, in soils. Their impacts on human health are still largely unknown.
For these reasons many governments and agencies have decided to act on the plastic problem. The UN Environmental Assembly has started dedicated discussions, some countries or coastal regions have started banning various types of plastics (mainly certain single-use items) while the EU lately issued a “Plastic Strategy”, i.e. a framing document for actions to tackle the problem.
The plastic problem in a nutshell:
- Since 1950, the production of plastics has grown from 2 million tonnes a year (1950) to 381 million tonnes a year (2015); the total amount of plastics ever manufactured is more than 8 billion tonnes.
- Every year around 8-9 million tonnes of plastics are estimated to get into seas and oceans – a truckload a minute; which is “turning oceans into a plastic soup”.
- With no action to cut the pace of plastics entering seas, by 2050 we’d have more plastics than fish mass in the oceans.
- Over time, the flow of plastics into oceans has created the so-called “garbage patches” (e.g. the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to have more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons).
- Importantly, 80% of the plastic getting into oceans comes from land-based sources, emphasising the need for targeted actions on production and consumption of plastics.
What is circular economy?
One of the reasons for overconsumption is our linear economy model: it is the “take, make, waste” approach. It’s not just the waste problem (littering, impacts related to landfilling and incineration) – we keep needing more new primary raw materials (oil, wood, metals, rare earth elements, etc). The less waste we produce and the more we reuse and recycle, the fewer new resources we need to extract from nature. Good waste management becomes, first and foremost, a way to keep our production and consumption patterns “sustainable”, i.e. able to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the needs of future generations.
The quest for sustainability in the management of post-use materials is becoming a strategic priority, influencing the political agenda in many areas of the world. Europe has issued its “Circular Economy Package” which aims at maximising recovery of resources from discarded materials, and minimising disposal. The term “Circular Economy” (equivalent definitions have been adopted, e.g. “Sustainable Material Management” in the US) captures the goal of using materials again and again in further loops of production/consumption/recovery, minimising reliance on new primary raw materials and on the need to build and run disposal sites.
Circular Economy includes many actions and levels at which we can act to preserve resources: we can reduce the amount of materials that are used to produce and distribute goods, we can reuse materials, repair, separate materials suitable for composting and recycling, refurbish/repurpose some materials and items to bring them to new life.
The essence of circular economy is captured by the “butterfly diagram”
We have many ways to preserve resources, from the individual scale to low-tech solutions (sharing and reusing, repurposing) to more complex systems requiring organisational and technological infrastructures (separate collection aimed at industrial composting or industrial recycling, biorefineries to extract valuable compounds from bio-based materials, etc.). While thinking globally, always be ready to act locally, even before larger strategies are promoted or mandated by local or national governments.
At whichever level you can implement or promote actions, saving resources means reducing the pressure on the global need for new primary raw materials. This is a precious contribution to decrease the global crisis on the scarcity of resources, which otherwise triggers international tensions and fights for ownership and use of resources. Hence, be proud: any item you save, any kilogram of material you keep in the loop, is part of a peace-making global strategy.
Why keep resources in the loop?
There is a direct environmental benefit of keeping materials in the loop. First and foremost, taking care of and valuing our resources reduces dumping and littering. This is the important link to our cleanup efforts. We took actions for removing litter from the environment; we’d like everybody to commit, at each level of responsibility, to prevent the problem from showing up again. If we want to value materials, minimise littering, and reduce the loss of materials, we can:
- promote and adopt less wasteful habits and products,
- establish formal collection schemes,
- promote local recycling and reuse activities,
- establish markets for recycled materials and compost.
It is important to sharply cut the amount of waste scattered in cities, countrysides, waterways, and oceans. This is how we tackle the problem of plastic marine pollution, which has grown at a pace of 8 million tonnes each year. Garbage patches in the oceans, plastic entering the food webs and our drinking water, these are the main signs of a dramatic problem now at the top of the public agenda.
Sustainable management of waste doesn’t only reduce litter, minimise the need for landfills and incinerators and lower the environmental impacts and concerns. It also brings wider social benefits – job opportunities, increased income and living standards.
Key facts and figures to engage and convince others
- As a plan that maximises efficiency in the management of resources, going circular would mean a higher efficiency in the economic system: fewer resources used and lower expenditures for disposal of discards. Some estimates show impressive economic advantages of this “efficiency plan”: e.g. 1,8 trillion euros of economic benefits by 2030 for the EU switching from current practice to circular economy.
- Separate collection, recycling, composting, reuse and repair are labour-intensive activities. Managing resources through such activities, instead of disposal at landfill and incineration sites, would increase the occupational levels. For example, 1,1 million jobs could be created if the US aimed for recycling 75% of waste and composting through a Zero Waste approach. A report by RREUSE shows occupational figures for using different options to manage 10.000 tonnes of waste/materials:
- 1 job at incinerators
- 6 jobs at landfills
- 36 jobs at recycling/composting sites
- 296 jobs at reuse centres
- Reducing waste, reusing and sending it to recycling and composting is also a great climate-mitigation measure. Preserving resources also preserves the “embodied energy” of materials, i.e. the energy which has been used to extract, transport, transform, distribute them. As a consequence, reducing landfilling and incineration of waste also minimises greenhouse gases from the waste sector (which, according to various estimates should be between 4 and 12% of the total generation of greenhouse gases) as can be seen from this graph:
- Circular management of resources contributes to many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations
Basic steps of preserving resources
The principle to best embody the effort to preserve the value of materials is the
“cascading use of materials”. This can be defined as retaining resources in the highest
status for as long as possible, in practical terms the search for the use of waste that – in
the given operational context – maximises its value.
The approach to move from linear to circular use of resources, can be described with the
“4R’s” strategy, i.e. the combination of the following actions:
- Reduce (and refuse): choose goods and services that create less waste, refuse
single use items (straws, bags, etc.) when not strictly needed.
- Reuse: choose durable products and use them again and again; give second life
to stuff which is not useful anymore for you, but may still meet the needs of
- Recycle: separate your waste by type, as this advances recycling (and
- Rethink-Redesign: materials and items which can’t be reduced, reused,
recycled or composted should be industrially redesigned and made durable,
Note: Attention should be paid to the importance of “waste audits” – analysing what
kind of waste you create the most. It is a great way to get information for the next steps
and connect the last “R” back to first one, creating an endless loop of