Closing the Loop: How a Circular Economy Helps us #BeatPollution

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Chief, Resources and Markets BranchUnited Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment)
29 November 2017

Some of our earliest, vanguard thinkers highlighted some time ago that we are on a “spaceship earth” and need to align our economies to better fit that reality.  And that our historical and traditional approach to growth and prosperity centered on taming and exploiting a seemingly endless resource frontier, giving rise to the idea of a “cowboy economy” where anything goes and essentially wealth is for the taking.   Institutions and rules lagged behind, though in areas of the world where resource scarcity started to bite, we saw 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.  

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 make-take-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.

These facts, taking 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 centers on the role of the circular economy in support the theme of this year’s UN Environment Assembly:  Towards a Pollution Free Planet.

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 Commissioner from the European Union 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 public and private spheres.   UN Environment is joining hands with the World Economic Forum, Philipps, 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 deep dive focus on sustainable procurement, plastics, and reducing e-waste.

Thus begins 2018, and which 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 in 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.


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.