How the circular economy can lighten our load on the planet

By Lucy Jones  December 23rd, 2020

Recent research shows the weight of human-made goods outweighs Earth’s living biomass, but the circular economy offers a way to turn things around.

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At the ACE Hub, we believe in the circular economy and its potential to make our lives better. We know the opportunities are there to begin the transition, but what kind of benefits can we expect from going circular? 

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It is impossible to quantify the value of our home planet. This pale blue dot in space has been sustaining life for billions of years and is constantly evolving to meet the challenges humans set for it. A plastic-eating bacteria discovered in a Japanese landfill site is just one example of the incredible resilience and adaptability of nature. Respecting and conserving these incredible natural systems and their life-sustaining services is crucial to the survival of all life on the planet, but for too long this fact has gone unrecognised.

A recent study found that human-made materials now weigh more the total biomass of living things on Earth — plants, land and marine animals and microorganisms. The amount of plastic alone has a larger mass than all land and marine animals on the planet combined. Tilting the planet off its natural balance by producing and consuming too much stuff in unsustainable ways has drastic consequences for the viability of life on Earth. The impacts of our take-make-dispose economic model, which is predisposed to waste creation, manifest through phenomena like global warming, ocean pollution and soil degradation. Things need to change, and fast.

In order to restore balance between human and natural systems, we need to reduce the amount of stuff we use as well as the environmental impact of creating the stuff we do use. In her eternal wisdom, mother nature has already provided us with the template we need to follow to make this change: a fully circular system that uses the ‘waste’ from one process as fuel for the next. This is how all of nature’s great cycles (carbon, oxygen, water etc.) work. All we have to do is copy the way that nature’s cycles have been operating for millions of years.

That’s what a circular economy aims to do. By closing material loops, regenerating natural systems, keeping products in circulation and designing out waste and pollution, a circular economy can (quite literally) lighten our load on the planet. In addition to the big picture benefit of making human life possible on the planet, the circular economy delivers many smaller, but not less significant, environmental wins. Read on to learn more about the environmental benefits of going circular.

Tackling the greenhouse effect

The circular economy is underpinned by a transition to renewables. But reaching global carbon neutrality will require more than just a shift to renewable energy sources. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated through a switch to renewables. The remaining 45 per cent can only be addressed by transforming the systems of production that provide our food, cars, clothes and other products.

A circular economy can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by maximising the efficiency, use and value of materials. Designing products for durability, reuse, remanufacturing and recycling while drawing resources from within the economy rather than relying on extractive processes means less raw materials are required to make new products. According to Circle Economy, 62 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (excluding those created by land use and forestry) are created during the extraction, processing and production of goods. While only 38 per cent of a product’s emissions are emitted during its supply and use.

The circular economy provides a model for transforming the process of resource extraction and product production across sectors. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that applying circular economy principles in five sectors — cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food — could eliminate 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2e by 2050. That is equivalent to cutting the current emissions of all transport to zero. Another Ellen MacArthur Foundation study showed adopting a circular economy development path in Europe could halve the continent’s CO2 emissions by 2030.

Reducing the strain on natural resources

Less production means less resource use. For industries like food and textiles, this has the added environmental benefits of reducing land use and the use of fertilisers and pesticides. A dramatic reduction in food waste, for example, could reduce the amount of land that is needed for food production. Companies like Australia’s Yüme Food — an online marketplace for surplus food — show us how we might keep edible food from going to waste, which minimises the demand for more food production.

In addition to reducing the pressure on virgin materials, the circular economy provides us with alternative ways to manage valuable resources like water. While many of us are lucky enough to be able to turn on a tap and access a seemingly infinite supply of water, fresh water is a finite resource. The UN predicts 1.8 billion people will be living in water scarce regions by 2025, but globally less than 5 per cent of all water is reused. In regions that are already feeling the impacts of water scarcity and contamination, circularity is being embraced to build solutions to these problems. One example is Majik Water, a Kenyan start-up that has developed a product which harvests clean drinking water from the air.

Restoring and regenerating natural systems

Circular approaches that work with, rather than against, nature can help restore the health of the earth’s lands, waterways and air. To illustrate how this process works, let’s look at the example of soil.

A handful of soil can contain more living organisms than there are humans on the planet. Globally, we grow 95% of our food in topsoil. Through modern extractive farming, approximately half the topsoil on the planet has been undermined in the last 150 years and it can take up to 500 years for just one inch of topsoil to develop the appropriate microbial mix for effective plant growth.

Soil is eroding faster than it can be replaced because of industrial agricultural practices such as over-tilling, reduced tree cover and the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides designed to maximise the size and speed of crop growth. These processes kill microbiomes in the soil, reduce our ability to grow nutrient-dense food and compromise the carbon draw down benefits of healthy soil.

But there is a better way: regenerative agriculture, a circular economy approach focused on enhancing the entire ecosystem of a farm. Regenerative agriculture takes many forms — no-till farming, agroforestry, holistically managed grazing — but each is focused on producing the best possible product while improving the overall health of the ecosystem, including soil biodiversity. This creates better tasting, more nutrient rich food for us, improves air and water quality on farms and contributes to a healthy, thriving environment more broadly. It also reverses topsoil erosion and boots the carbon sequestering capability of soil.

Minimising waste and pollution

The last and perhaps most obvious environmental benefit of the circular economy is its capacity to design out waste and pollution. Of the 90 billion tonnes of primary materials that are extracted and used globally each year, only 9 per cent are recycled. Closing material loops means things that have traditionally been thought of as waste can be transformed into valuable resources.

When applied to an industry like the built environment or plastics, the environmental impacts of circular principles could be enormous. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, creating a circular economy for plastics could reduce annual plastic pollution in our oceans by 80 per cent, generate savings of $200 billion USD a year and create 700,000 jobs by 2040.

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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