How the circular economy can help us reach the Sustainable Development Goals
Circularity can deliver environmental benefits and feed holistic well-being
By Ana Birliga Sutherland (Editor, Circle Economy) & Ilektra Kouloumpi (Thriving Cities Lead, Circle Economy)
A short version of this article was originally published by the SDG Knowledge Hub.
As it’s moved from the fringes of academia into the mainstream, the circular economy has been posited as a means to address ecological breakdown by cutting resource extraction and limiting warming to 1.5-degrees. A transformational shift, circularity describes a system where waste is designed out, materials’ value is preserved at the highest level possible and natural systems are regenerated. Now, practitioners are also crucially exploring how a more holistic approach could pave the way to a better and more inclusive future for all: a circular economy with social and ethical concerns at its heart. If managed well, the circular economy has the potential to create new and decent jobs, ensure a more equitable management of resources and combat inequalities and societal crises, by providing resilient and thriving local economies. This article will show how the circular economy can help governments achieve a crucial roadmap for sustainable development: the Sustainable Development Goals — and move toward a safe, just and peaceful world for all.
The circular economy and sustainable development
2015 was a pivotal year for climate and social activism. It saw the signing of the landmark Paris Agreement — as well as the formation of a blueprint to end poverty, tackle inequality and protect the planet. This blueprint? The Sustainable Development Goals: 17 overarching goals — and 169 targets — that governments are aiming to meet by 2030. With seven years past and eight years to go, the race is on. Recent progress reports show where we should focus our efforts: while economy-related targets are close to being achieved, education, cities and communities’ sustainability — and particularly climate change — lag behind. Significant progress has been made in terms of poverty, health and inequality, but there’s still a way to go. This is where the circular economy comes in: by circulating resources multiple times, the circular economy tackles issues of scarcity and allows all to access what they need — without overburdening the earth. If it’s implemented in a holistic way — affording attention to social considerations and the fair distribution of resources — it also offers a pathway for achieving the SDGs; and the link between the two is ever-growing. As research has shown, the link with some SDGs is evident: SDGs 6, 7, 8, 12 and 15, for example — clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, responsible production and consumption, and life on land.
However: the circular economy’s link to other, more socially-related goals — such as SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) — is less clearly defined. We’re certain that a circular economy can drive positive social outcomes — but how?
Is a circular world a world without poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2)?
In addition to its clear environmental focus, the academic study of circular economy — and its real-world practice — has been largely focused on the economic sphere: the benefits it could bring for businesses and profits. More recently, scholars have been interested in amplifying the social side of the circular economy: also referred to as a circular society.
The first two SDGs — no poverty and zero hunger — precisely target the kinds of inequality the circular economy is less known to take into consideration. More and more circular initiatives are appearing worldwide that are bettering livelihoods, spurring economic benefits and creating more and more decent jobs. Jakarta-based non-profit XSProject, for example, collaborates with waste picker communities to create better work opportunities. The organisation buys rubbish from the waste pickers — preventing it from going to landfill — and sorts and washes it to safeguard hygiene and quality. The materials are then directly reused: community-members are hired by for-profit organisation XSProjek to manufacture a range of upcycled products, from tote bags to laptop cases. Around the world, waste pickers are commonly subject to very low incomes and poor working conditions: circular initiatives such as these dignify the work they do, provide decent remuneration and prevent masses of waste from sitting unused in landfill.
Empowering individuals in communities can also serve the purpose of reducing world hunger, in line with SDG 2: Rosario, Argentina’s UN-lauded Urban Agriculture Program, launched two decades ago and still running today, has been awarded a global resilience award to tackle both poverty and food insecurity. Early on, a number of local departments collaborated with the National University of Rosario, finding that 36% of municipal land was unused: a golden opportunity. By equipping residents with the tools and knowledge needed to start their own sustainable, organic urban farms and gardens, the Program saw the transformation of previously degraded or abandoned spaces — from strips along railways and highways to low-lying land susceptible to floods — into fruitful green spaces. It was a resounding success: the city saw the formation of 800 gardening groups that provided food to 40,000 residents, cutting dependence on food imports and improving food security — while also slashing greenhouse gas emissions from vegetable delivery by 95%. And now, more than 2,400 families are practising sustainable agriculture in their own household gardens.
We throw away one-third of the food we produce — four times what would be needed to end undernutrition across the globe: so, circular economy strategies that tackle food waste and allow for its repurposing can be crucial to ending hunger. Hong Kong-based supermarket chain PARKnSHOP, for example, has partnered with local NGO Food Rescue for the Needy, which redistributes any surplus from the market to households in need. Between 2012 and 2018, the business donated more than 800 tonnes of food that otherwise would have gone to landfill. And more recently, as the covid-19 pandemic swept the globe and disrupted food supply chains and increased food insecurity for many, ReFED launched its US-based Covid-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund: a ‘streamlined, one-stop, rapid response vehicle for donors to deliver support for mind-sized organisations aiming to rapidly scale food waste reduction and hunger relief efforts. The impact: $3.5 million was raised and distributed to 37 for-profit and nonprofit organisations that managed to rescue 41.5 million meals in just three months — keeping edible food from going to waste and tackling hunger in the process.
Circular economy for good health and wellbeing (SDG 3)
SDG 3 — good health and well-being — centres on ensuring healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages — and although the circular economy hasn’t often been discussed for its benefits to good health or well-being the link is worth exploring. Its ninth target states that by 2030, the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination must be reduced. This is particularly relevant to circularity as one of its core tenets is the use of regenerative materials and the adoption of systems that imitate the natural cycles of ecosystems. But what does this mean in practice? At its heart, it’s about choosing non-toxic, natural materials and processes that respect and strengthen ecosystems — protecting the health of water, air and soil.
With our current global food systems spewing emissions, relying on growing quantities of harmful synthetic chemical additives, and increasingly damaging soil health and harming biodiversity, this looks like a good place to start. Producing food regeneratively — in other words, in a way that nourishes the soil and nurtures biodiversity — is a crucial aspect of the circular economy: and it’ll bring benefits far beyond the ecological. The type of foods we produce matter, too: recent research found that upwards of 16,000 deaths occur each year from agriculture-related air pollution in the United States — 80% of which are the result of meat, dairy and egg production. Animal farming has emerged as more than just a health and environmental issue: it’s deeply linked to themes of social justice and environmental racism. North Carolina’s pig farms, for example, have reached new heights of infamy in recent years: 10% of the state’s population — largely low income and African American — live within five kilometres of an industrial hog farm, which store pigs’ waste in open air cesspools to eventually spray on fields in massive quantities. This causes severe respiratory conditions and asthma among children and confines residents to their homes in the summer months when the stench becomes ‘unbearable’. In a circular economy, animals in agriculture have a limited role to play: a circular food system could involve some livestock, but in radically fewer numbers — just enough to give value to infertile land where growing crops wouldn’t be possible, and where effluent would be manageable.
In this kind of circular food system, manure becomes a resource: a sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilisers. Spanish livestock feed manufacturer Alia is integrating circular economy strategies in its business model to make this a reality: its pilot project, launched in 2020, transformed by-products from the agrifood sector to turn into animal feed, while also converting farm waste into organic fertiliser. Embracing this kind of balanced agricultural system benefits air, water and soil — and human health, to boot. A circular food system that overhauls our current modes of production can also enhance peoples’ social lives and wellbeing: Brussels’ Good Food Strategy, for example, promotes urban fruit and veggie autoproduction through collective and family gardens — and aims to evoke pleasure and conviviality by creating shared moments among friends, family and neighbours. To date, more than 260 collective and family gardens have sprung up in Brussels — and more than one-quarter of households are growing some of their own food. While it’s unlikely that these kinds of initiatives will fully replace our industrial agriculture systems, they present a regenerative alternative that reconnects people with their food.
Regenerative, non-toxic materials and processes can and should be used far beyond the food sector: they can also make a substantial impact on health and well-being when applied to construction. In Finland a circular public procurement design and building approach for a new preschool building was implemented, with an emphasis on zero-emissions and non-toxic materials — its outdoor play equipment, for example, was manufactured with FSC timber, and its climbing ropes were made with all natural fibres.
How circularity works to diminish inequalities (SDG 5, SDG 10)
More equality — between genders, as outlined in SDG 5, or between and within social groups and communities, as in SDG 10 — isn’t inherently linked to circular initiatives. However, practitioners have emphasised that the transition to circularity must not repeat the mistakes of the linear economic model, which has bred extreme inequality. There’s also a huge opportunity to do better: the systematic inclusion of a gender lens in the circular economy, for example, could empower women and ensure a just transition. Absorbing lessons from traditional and Indigenous sustainable practices held, in great part, by women, could have a key role to play in accelerating the transition to circularity, too. In lower-income countries, women are also disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of linear production — such as pollution and the destruction of rural communities — and often fall into informal work in the waste management sector.
Creating a more circular, more sustainable world could have a largely positive impact on the lives of women — especially outside of higher-income nations. But circular initiatives and policies should still be designed with equity front of mind. In India, the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, the Incubation Network launched a programme in late 2021 to advance gender equality within plastic waste management and recycling systems, which largely rely on women working in the informal sector. The programme aims to support women-led, circular initiatives across Southeast Asia, offering financial assistance to get projects off the ground, largely centred around supporting female waste pickers and helping them achieve better social and economic integration, while creating better opportunities for recycling. The SiDalang Living Project — launched in Jakarta — also works to improve gender equality while championing the circular economy: low-income women are provided with intensive training in upcycling plastic waste through workshops and tutorials, with the aim that they’ll eventually form their own businesses.
Circular initiatives can be designed with other forms of inequality in mind, too: Rotterdam-based Robedrijf connects people distant from the labour market to employers through the outsourced services they offer in the assembly, packaging and repair of products. Those hired have physical or mental disabilities and may struggle in traditional job roles — and through Robedrijf learn circular skills like disassembly and repair while working in a supportive environment.
The bottom line: circular economy isn’t just about better material management
The circular economy is a holistic concept: going beyond material use, it can positively impact greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution of our air, water and soil. If implemented in an integrated manner, it can also help shape a more just, equitable world, bringing more equal access to resources, equity among minorities and a range of safe, decent jobs. We can’t continue along the path the linear economy has forged, framing our relationship with the world solely through resource extraction, production and profit. While circularity has a clear link with some SDGs — especially those in environmental or economic spheres — its connection to others is less implicit. But its potential is enormous: when applied in a holistic manner, putting both people and planet at the fore, a global circular economy can drive the achievement of the SDGs. And while a circular economy on its own cannot ensure peace and justice, it can allow us to reimagine our economy and international relationships in such a way that they are not dependent on the exchange of fossil fuels. Going circular and eschewing the oil, gas and coal that spur international conflicts could create more stable, peaceful and regenerative economies and nations — a hard truth that Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has served to illustrate.
We must be mindful in applying circular initiatives and maintain a bird’s eye view to preempt and address potential tradeoffs, as strategies that may work towards one goal may pause or reverse progress on another. This only emphasises the need to foster greater awareness and skills and knowledge development for the lesser known social dimensions of the circular economy: it should encompass a circular society, a vision of an economy creating harmony between the eco-, techno- and sociosphere. When designing and applying circular strategies, don’t just consider how to close loops on material resources: think outside the box and ask deeper probing questions — how can we meet the needs of all with the resources we have? Ultimately: how can we ensure that circular solutions allow for all people — as well as the planet — to thrive?
Here at Circle Economy we’re working to ensure the transition secures wellbeing for all and positively impacts work and workers through our Circular Jobs Initiative, while our Thrive! initiative develops transformative circular action plans for cities, based on the Doughnut model and with social concerns front and centre. Read more on our People in a circular economy page and explore the circular society in Why we need to rethink the ‘technical’ circular economy.