21 circular economy solutions: changing how we eat, live and travel for a more sustainable world
By Laxmi Haigh (Lead of Editorial, Circle Economy)
This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum.
- In 2019 the global economy consumed over 100 billion tonnes of materials.
- The Circularity Gap Report highlights how moving to a circular economy can reduce consumption levels and help mitigate climate change.
- These 21 changes to how we make, keep and discard things can build more sustainable systems and a circular economy.
Never before has humankind made and consumed so much stuff. In 2019, for the first time, the global economy consumed over 100 billion tonnes of materials.
Already five of the nine planetary boundaries have been transgressed during humanity’s short presence on Earth, driven by a throwaway culture that too often exploits nature. Our economy has become inherently linear, and it may be difficult to reimagine how we make, use and discard things unless we shift toward a more regenerative and inherently natural system.
How can we build a circular economy?
The latest edition of the Circularity Gap Report explores the concept of a circular economy and investigates its role in climate mitigation and in cultivating more equitable societies around the world. Ultimately, the model will require a systems shift: radically rethinking how we use resources to fulfil our needs and wants. The report presents a range of circular solutions, based on four key principles of the circular economy: using fewer resources, using resources for longer, recycling resources and regenerating resources.
The report applies these strategies to ‘key societal needs and wants’ — such as housing, nutrition and transport — to transform how resources are fed into the economy. If applied globally, this could result in a 28% reduction of resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 39% — keeping the world on track to reach its goal of limiting global warming to 1.5-degrees. Here we outline 21 strategies that can be applied in daily life, to businesses and at local and national government level. Importantly, these are not only grounded in energy policies — they go far beyond and span economic policy, industry, business and individual consumer behaviour.
Feeding the world and the circular economy
Providing nutrition to the world is an extremely resource and emissions intensive task: accounting for 10 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and 21.3 billion tonnes of resources a year. It’s also extremely inefficient as more than 30% of all food produced is thought to be wasted. While a massive proportion of the global population are malnourished, many others are overweight. Nutrition for all can be delivered with a fraction of the resources currently pumped into the linear food systems. The current model is ripe for change to a circular economy.
1. Enough really can be enough
It’s extremely impactful to first slash excessive consumption before increasing production to tackle food shortages and scarcity. The words ‘no’ and ‘refuse’ are important in the circular economy.
Let’s make cutting excess consumption tangible through food sufficiency: bringing the per capita caloric and protein intakes of high-income, high-emitter countries (such as the US or many in the EU, see the Shift profile below) down to match healthy levels — 2,000 calories a day for a typical woman. This can be done by reducing the material and emissions footprint per calorie of foods by prioritising healthier and more satiating foods over foods with low nutritional value. Think here of sugary beverages and refined, heavily processed items that require resources and energy to be produced, but their ‘empty calorie’ effect on our stomachs means they are a wildly inefficient diet choice.
3. Embrace a plant-based diet
Animal-based proteins are yet another inefficient way to reach our daily calorie quota: 25 kilograms of grain and about 15,000 litres of water is needed to produce only 1 kilogram of beef — inputs that could instead be used to nourish humans. In some parts of the world, where a variety of other high protein, nutritious options are available, ditching animal proteins can be one of the most impactful individual actions for the climate. Eating a primarily plant-based diet could slash global emissions by 1.32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.
4. Shop your fridge and cook creatively
Circular shifts will also deliver secondary benefits such as less packaging needed for food — a massive win in terms of reducing single-use plastic — reduced obesity and healthier overall communities. It could also help to reduce food waste, also a strategy in itself needed to make our food systems more circular. Try doing this at home by not only cutting excess consumption, but planning your meals ahead, looking up innovative recipes to make use of your broccoli stems or fruit peels, shopping your refrigerator before heading to the market and skipping impulse buys if possible. Food service can employ the use of AI apps, such as Winnow, which has been found to cut kitchen waste by 50% or more.
5. Check for certifications
Choosing food that is sustainably sourced — meaning it comes from ecosystems that are managed according to environmental standards that enable regeneration — is a strong circular choice. A range of sustainable and carbon-neutral certification schemes aim to provide this ethical stamp to consumers. Nowadays, even cheese can come with a PAS2060 certification, the international mark of carbon neutrality.
6. Support local
Sometimes we need to look to the past to learn lessons for the future. Practising the habits of our grandparents by going local and regional when picking our ingredients can have substantial environmental plus points. This often reduces the need for hot-housing vegetables, which equates to a reduction in fuel inputs, plus fewer food miles and lower transportation impacts. Supporting or practising urban, organic and precision farming models can also eliminate harmful synthetic fertiliser use, a huge source of emissions on its own.
In the UK, interest in allotments soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as home-grown food caught on. Lastly, backed by carbon-neutral biomass certification, using food waste and losses as animal feed — instead of the usual soy-based feeds — is an age-old tradition that will support the growth of secondary markets, take a chunk out of livestock emissions and help to avoid deforestation. While it’s not legal in the EU, it’s a successful practice in Japan and South Korea, where about 40% of food waste is used as feed.
7. Cook clean
Finally, cooking with polluting fuels is a silent killer: nearly 4 million people die a year from illness related to the associated pollution. Food preparation resources can also be made more circular, and safe, by replacing polluting traditional biomass and black carbon producing stoves with clean cooking apparatuses, including advanced solar-electric stoves. Increasing access to clean and sustainable energy around the world will be key to making this circular act available to those who most need it.
Homes and buildings and the circular economy
Providing shelter for the world is the most intensive ‘need’ in terms of resources and emissions. Buildings are often developed without regard for the ecosystems of which they are a part. And in our civilisation’s history, we have built a lot: the mass of human-made things, from pavements to apartments to phones, now outweighs all natural biomass, such as trees and animals. Using circular economy strategies to lessen the load of our housing needs on the environment, and building with (rather than over) nature is imperative. Fulfilling the global economy’s need for housing is currently responsible for nearly 40 billion tonnes of resources and 13.5 billion tonnes of GHG emissions a year.
Multi-purpose buildings reduce the overall floor space needed and optimise resource efficiency, and also deliver proportional savings on heating and cooling.
8. Design flexible, multi-purpose homes
To make our need for housing circular, we must ultimately call for fewer, but better, new houses to be built and make using them for multiple purposes the norm, especially in higher-income countries where we have masses of stock already built up. To make the most of the buildings we already have, they should be used flexibly and be able to adapt as time and needs evolve. Imagine a hybrid building that is used as a flex-work office space, a community centre and an evening school. Such spaces can be payment-per-use, such as the cross-industry collaborative building Dutch Mountains in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Multi-purpose buildings reduce the overall floor space needed and optimise resource efficiency, and also deliver proportional savings on heating and cooling. These savings will be further boosted by cuts in energy consumption that can be practised by anyone: lower room temperatures, smart metering and improved thermal insulation.
9. Use existing homes for longer
To continue making the most of the buildings already gracing the Earth, we must prioritise extending the lifetime of existing stock. Up until the 1960s there were strong traditions of reusing and sorting building materials, but this began to change as the construction industry in Europe moved from lime mortar to cement mortar, building materials became cheaper, and there were fewer requirements regarding the service life of buildings. Supporting and urging government interventions that ban building with virgin materials and policies to cap new construction in line with available volumes of secondary materials for building can reduce the need to extract finite materials from the Earth. Ultimately, waste from demolished buildings can be processed into new building materials, such as concrete mix or building sand. These options massively boost resource efficiency in production and performance.
10. No building left behind — or empty
Core circular methods must be practised at all levels, from the consumer to the national government. These include renovation, refurbishment, retrofitting and modular design. Modular design allows us to easily adapt buildings over time to suit changing needs and carries the potential for deconstruction, relocation and reuse of elements (or even whole buildings). Underused and disused buildings should also be occupied — in a time of resource scarcity buildings should not be sitting empty. Only with these methods can we try to meet the global housing demand within our global stock limits.
11. Nature-based solutions and renewable technologies
Nature-based solutions (NBS) can also lower material and energy demand for housing. We can be inspired by low-energy approaches such as Passivhaus design (this minimises the requirements for mechanical space heating, cooling and ventilation), while also applying renewable technologies such as solar photovoltaic or thermal, air-source and geothermal heat pumps to shrink the carbon footprint of a property. The Mahali Hub in South Africa are modular homes built with upcycled and locally available materials and a range of sustainable additions such as rainwater harvesting and passive cooling, resulting in net-zero homes.
We need to see the widespread use of low-carbon construction materials, material lightweighting and local sourcing to help to cut embodied energy in the housing system. And to add some regenerative power, the use of natural or renewable building materials, such as wood, straw and hemp, can boost biodiversity and regenerate ecosystems, while also generally slashing material footprints due to their lightweight character. Green roofs and living walls are all examples of NBS interventions with regenerative benefits, at least in terms of thermal performance, water management, biodiversity and air quality.
Consuming and producing goods and the circular economy
Fulfilling the societal need for consumables — a diverse group of items ranging from refrigerators and furniture to clothing and cleaning agents — is not hugely resource-intensive compared to housing, for example, at 6.9 billion tonnes of resources and 5.6 billion tonnes of GHG a year. However, it’s incredibly wasteful, toxic and it is a huge drain on a different set of resources: cotton, synthetic, fossil fuel-based materials such as polyester and all the dye pigments and chemicals that go with it.
Shifting consumption choices and mainstreaming circular design, both usage and acquisition rates can decline.
The production of low-cost, synthetic materials, which form the backbone of cheap, fast fashion, has increased nine-fold in the past 50 years, using around 350 million barrels of oil each year and shedding microplastics in the process. Meanwhile, the fashion industry is responsible for a fifth of waste water globally. That’s why we must move towards a circular economy.
12. Make careful consumer choices
As we know by now, we need to begin by using less. Aside from conscious choices and utilising the all-important r-word — refuse — we need to start with the efficient design and use of consumer products. By shifting consumption choices and mainstreaming circular design, both usage and acquisition rates can decline. Tangible actions include: increasing digitisation to reduce paper use; not making textiles from animals; aiming to eradicate single-use plastic; optimising the usage of electronics to minimise e-waste; choosing only eco-labelled responsibly-sourced timber furniture, and prioritising local purchasing and sourcing.
13. Get repairing and sharing
We must also learn to make the most of the stuff we have. Here, encouraging repair, maintenance, sharing, re-manufacturing and take-back programmes for textiles, appliances, furniture and machinery are powerful and should form the base of circular systems. Durable denim meets circular business models in the case of Kuyichi: the company’s resale business model offers a take-back scheme for customers to easily give their denim a new lease of life to their denim, as well as a resale service for preloved goods.
14. Support ‘right to repair’
The backwards practice of designing products to break relatively quickly, planned or built-in obsolescence, must be eliminated, or we should choose not to invest in the companies that fail to do so. A phone with an old battery should not have to be tossed out and replaced, but should instead be repaired, the battery replaced easily with available and value-for-money replacement parts. Design for disassembly, customisation and replacement parts are all practical and marketable options that should become mainstream. The EU has no dedicated policy in place to stop the absurd practice of planned obsolescence, yet, Biden in the US has taken a bold and necessary step in formally backing ‘right to repair’ legislation that calls on companies to release the knowledge and tools required to repair many common devices.
15. Consider chemicals
To reduce the level of toxins and pollutants in the environment, we should prioritise the use of sustainable materials for chemical-free consumables. This is imperative in light of recent research that posits that the fifth planetary boundary to be surpassed is chemical pollution — spurred by plastics and chemicals from farmland fertilisers, for example, leaching into the environment. We use products and dispose of them, but they don’t just go away. To avoid further environmental degradation, businesses and consumers alike can prioritise bio-based alternatives, chemicals leasing and natural fertilisers, and organic compost in gardens.
16. Recycle and help build secondary markets
We can also look to recycle our consumables when refusing, repairing or refurbishing are not possible avenues. Closing loops and boosting value in secondary markets will allow a circular market for consumables to thrive. To get there, governments must promote the recycling of plastics, synthetic fibres, paper, wood and wood by-products; as well as specifying recycled content obligations, and substituting them where possible for virgin or raw material. On the plastics front, a range of legislation in this arena has been rolled out: by 2030, all plastic bottles in the EU must contain 30% recycled content, while this stands at 50% in California; and in Maharashtra in India, industrial packaging produced in the state must include 20% recycled content. All steps in the right direction, but this has got to move faster, while concurrently turning off the plastics tap by reducing unnecessary plastics production. If applied globally, this could cut 1.23 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and save 2.18 billion tonnes of materials, according to the Circularity Gap Report 2022.
Mobility, travel and the circular economy
Mobility systems in their current form are responsible for 8.7 billion tonnes of resources and 17.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions a year — coming in second only to housing. With its mammoth footprint and contribution to air pollution worldwide, mobility is commonly associated with GHG emissions reduction in the minds of both policymakers and the public.
We can learn a lot from the behaviours practiced during the covid-19 lockdowns — namely a cut in long-distance travel and telecommuting for work.
Current mobility habits leave much to be desired. Privately owned vehicles in Europe sit unused for 90% of the time, while the phenomenon of ‘ghost flights’ recently shocked the world: airlines flying empty planes just to retain flight slots, all the while spewing GHG emissions. From driving to flying, opportunities for change are plentiful as we look towards a circular economy.
17. Travel less often
When it comes to cutting the resource and emissions intensity of mobility, the simplest way is to reduce travel. We can learn a lot from the behaviours practiced during the covid-19 lockdowns — namely a cut in long-distance travel and telecommuting for work. Post-pandemic, these environmentally friendly behaviours can continue to be encouraged through a range of interventions.
The provision of regional and local hubs — the so-called 15-minute city being piloted in both Paris, the US and China, for example — allows residents to reach amenities within 15 minutes, either by foot, bike or public transport. Shared and virtual offices, telecommuting and working from home when possible can continue to be promoted by employers, especially as many companies acknowledge that staff productivity was maintained.
18. Go for lightweight designs
Vehicle design improvements are another more incremental way to reduce the level of materials used in mobility. Lightweight and smaller vehicles, such as cars and scooters, result in less steel and aluminium used for production, as well as lower fuel consumption and embodied energy.
19. Keep your car for longer
When it comes to prioritising durable design and material selection, plus optimising repairability and maximising maintenance, we can also use materials for longer — extending the lifetime of vehicles.
20. Share when you can
As well as better designed vehicles, better utilisation of all vehicles will further reduce the intensity of this societal need. With personal vehicle ownership no longer the dream it once was, interventions include shared mobility, via car clubs and pools, ride-sharing, and public transport, with park-and-ride provision to cut fuel consumption.
21. Design for reuse
Finally, optimising end-of-life vehicle management is critical to cycle flows, with the recycling of metal and plastic components, and the use of recycled materials, on the rise.
To dive into these 21 circular solutions that can bring us back on a 1.5-degree pathway, and understand the key role local and national governments and businesses play in driving the circular transition, download the Circularity Gap Report 2022.