By Steven Stone, Chief of UN Environment's Resources and Markets Branch
Vanguard thinkers highlighted some time ago that we are on a “spaceship earth” and need to align our economies to better fit that reality. Our traditional approach to growth and prosperity has been centred on taming and exploiting a seemingly endless resource frontier. This has given rise to the idea of a “cowboy economy” in which anything goes and wealth is anyone’s for the taking. Institutions and rules have lagged behind, though in areas of the world that have already started to feel the strain of resource scarcity, we have seen innovation and new approaches to creating and sustaining prosperity.
As a result, our appetite for resources is growing – from 20 billion tons of primary material extracted in 1970 to over 70 billion tons in 2010, according to the International Resource Panel.
The idea of closing the loop between our endless resource frontier, which is now increasingly under strain and showing its limits, and our growing needs for human welfare, is taking a new turn with the appearance of the circular economy.
Our appetite for resources is growing – from 20 billion tons of primary material extracted in 1970 to over 70 billion tons in 2010.
Based on the simple concepts of reducing waste, reusing materials and redesigning how we create value from products and services, the idea of the circular economy has emerged as a beacon for moving away from a take-make-dispose culture and society. It also presents the opportunity to fundamentally address how we create value in our economies and minimize the liabilities that they create, hallmarks of a green and inclusive economy.
For starters, once we begin to design end use and reuse from the beginning of a product’s life cycle – anticipating the material flow and consciously incorporating resource recovery and reuse from the beginning – we are in a better position to avoid contributing to a disposable society.
And this is clearly becoming an urgent task.
- Consider the fact that the health costs associated with air pollution are estimated at over $5 trillion per year; with an estimated 9 million avoidable deaths worldwide annually due to a polluted environment.
- Consider the fact that every year, over six million tons of plastic make their way into our oceans; and that a recent sampling of global water supplies found micro plastics in 83 per cent of the public taps in the survey.
- The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that a full 95 per cent of all plastics are disposed of after a single use, representing a loss to the economy of $80 billion to $120 billion every year without considering the negative externalities.
These facts, taken together with other evidence, illustrate the close association between today’s linear economy and pollution – with devastating effects on human health.
There is an upside to all this – and it centres on the role of the circular economy in support of the theme of this year’s UN Environment Assembly: Towards a pollution-free planet.
It is clear that the circular economy is gaining traction in both the public and private spheres.
At the Assembly, UN Environment and its partners, including the European Commission, the Ellen McArthur Foundation, and others, will explore the positive reinforcing linkages in more detail, at an event entitled “The role of circular economy in the transition towards a pollution-free planet." Ministers from China, South Africa and Chile will share their experiences and learning in bringing circularity to their green development efforts. The European Union’s Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries will also speak to the issue of plastics in a circular economy.
Looking forward, it is clear that the circular economy is gaining traction in both the public and private spheres. UN Environment is joining hands with the World Economic Forum, Philips, and the Global Environment Facility to pick up the pace in 2018 – quite literally. PACE – the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy – goes live in Davos next January, with a deep-dive focus on sustainable procurement, plastics, and reducing e-waste.
Thus begins 2018, and that brings us back full circle to our opening lines. For 2018 is the year when countries will come to the High-Level Political Forum in New York to report on their advances in producing and consuming more responsibly – goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
At UN Environment, we like to think of 2018 as the year of consuming and producing sustainably, a chance to close the loop and bring circularity into our purchasing and consuming behavior. And the circular economy is clearly central to the shift towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.
Because once we are aware of how deeply our consumer choices affect and shape the economy, it is only a small step to closing the loop and bringing more circularity into our lives, economies and societies – helping us to #BeatPollution and move towards a pollution-free world.
Click here for more information on the Environment Assembly side event on the circular economy, which is taking place on the UN’s Nairobi campus on Tuesday 5 December from 13:15 to 14:45.