The Circularity Gap Report 2023, published by Circle Economy, has uncovered that the world is now only 7.2 per cent circular – meaning that only 7.2 per cent of the materials that we extract and use are being returned to the economy. This comes with a decline from the first Gap report’s 9.1 per cent circularity in 2018 followed by 8.6 per cent in 2020.
Even though we are in a time that is witnessing more talks and attention on the circular economy, there still seems to be a slower rate of adopting circular principles. As our population grows rapidly, so does our material consumption and the need to build more. According to the report, the global population has doubled in the last 50 years and tripled in its material consumption.
Despite current low circularity rates, the report provides hope that there is still time left to reverse the clock on consumption. It outlines circular solutions across just four key systems that can satiate our needs while utilising just 70 per cent of the materials we are using today.
We have exceeded five out of nine planetary boundaries
Planetary boundaries are quantifiable and interrelated boundaries within which humanity can continue to survive as well as thrive. Exceeding these boundaries can lead to irreversible damage to the planet’s health, therefore directly affecting humanity. These boundaries include stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, land system change, biogeochemical flows (phosphorous and nitrogen) and atmospheric aerosol landing.
Currently, five out of these nine planetary boundaries have been exceeded and we are now living in what is called the ‘danger zone’ of irreversible change to each of these five areas. The circular economy can reverse this problem and drastically reduce the pressures on these planetary boundaries in various ways. According to the report, focusing on 16 solutions encompassed under just four major key systems can help us achieve this:
1. Transform the global food system
Put healthier, satiating foods first
Go local, seasonal and organic
Mainstream regenerative agriculture
No more avoidable food waste
2. Build a circular built environment
Be as energy efficient as possible
Make the most of what already exists
Prioritise circular materials and approaches
3. Achieve circular manufactured goods and consumables
Mainstream industrial symbiosis and efficiency
Extend the lifetime of machinery, equipment and goods
Buy what you need
Eschew fast fashion in favour of sustainable textiles
4. Drive forward circular mobility and transport
Embrace car-free lifestyles and roads
Invest in high-quality public transport
Rethink air travel
Electrify remaining vehicles
Despite material consumption tripling in the last 50 years, consumption can look different for different countries and is unevenly distributed throughout the world. Many high-income countries have some of the highest amounts of material consumption and vice versa, despite lower populations. Therefore, what a circular economy looks like, irrespective of its defining principles will have stark differences for different countries.
To address this, the report broadly categorises countries and their circular economy journeys into three profiles, based on where they are at in their progress. The categories are ‘Build’, ‘Grow’ and ‘Shift’. Build countries are those that live within planetary boundaries but still must build an economic system that covers their basic needs, and these consist of 46% of the global population. Countries under the Grow category, housing 37% of the population, need to continue growing to satisfy their societal needs although they must stay within their planetary boundaries. Lastly, the Shift countries are usually high-income countries that are over-consuming to meet their wants. They represent a small amount of the population; however, they contribute to 31% of material consumption.
To dive deeper into these solutions, you can read the full Circular Economy Gap Report 2023.