How Circular Economy Saves The World
In 2015, about two-thirds of the material we scratched from the planet slipped through our fingers. More than 67 billion tons of hard-won stuff was lost, most of it scattered irretrievably. Plastictrash drifted into rivers and oceans; so did nitrates and phosphates leaching from fertilized fields. A third of all food rotted, even as the Amazon was deforested to produce more. Think of an environmental problem, and chances are it’s connected to waste. That includes climate change: It happens because we burn fossil fuels and scatter the waste—carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.
This may sound ridiculous, but it felt like an epiphany. Sure, it said, the threats we face are multifarious and overwhelming. Sure, they’re planetary in scale. But really, to get along on this Earth, we must do just one thing: Stop wasting so much of it.
The “circularity gap,” as de Wit and his colleagues dubbed it when they presented their report at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, is relatively new in human history. It dates to our industrial use of fossil fuels in the 18th century. Until then, most of what humans did was done with muscle power, whether human or animal. Growing things, making things, shipping things took hard labor, which made them valuable. Our limited physical energy also restricted how big a dent we could put in the planet. It kept most of us very poor, however.
Cheap fossil energy, concentrated by geologic time and pressure in seams of coal or pools of oil, changed all that. It made it easier to extract raw materials anywhere, ship them to factories, and send the merchandise everywhere. Fossil fuels exploded our possibilities—and the process keeps intensifying. In the past half century, while the world’s population has more than doubled, the amount of material flowing through the economy has more than tripled.
The idea is catching on, particularly in Europe, that small, crowded, rich but resource-poor continent. The European Union is investing billions in the strategy. The Netherlands has pledged to go fully circular by 2050. Amsterdam, Paris, and London all have plans. “It must happen,” said Wayne Hubbard, head of the London Waste and Recycling Board.
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