VIEWPOINT

Save the planet? What? Who are we kidding? How the circular economy could save us as a species

The Earth has been around for over 4 billion years. It is a self-correcting eco-system that heals itself. It has experienced many major events, for example meteor strikes, ice age, magnetic pole reversal, earthquakes, etc., and it has survived. Species over millennia have come and gone, and only those that are around today are those that evolved to the changing surroundings. So when we talk about saving the planet, it’s nonsense. Earth doesn’t need us, we need Earth. Humans have been around 200,000 years – in which we have only begun industrialisation in the last 200 years, and what a negative impact we have created in that time. Global warming is nature’s own way of protecting Earth from harmful species. As the saying goes, you reap what you sow.

Learning from nature

Nature is the inspiration for a circular economy. Everything has a purpose and at the end of its time, it regenerates into another form that is used back by nature. A simple example is a tree. A tree, at end of its life, decays and returns back to earth, giving rise to another tree. This is possible because the basic components of the tree are designed for reuse. Manufacturing, which an essential element of circular economy should ideally follow the same principle. Currently most manufacturing processes follow the linear model of take, make and dispose. We need to change to survive but change requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders.

Role of consumers

We were trained to use plastic bags to contain waste for hygiene purposes. We were encouraged to use straws for drinking for health and hygiene reasons. Single use cutlery was convenient and hygienic. To be fair, the underlying intentions were good… at that time. Now we know better and it’s time for us to think twice about the long term impact whenever we choose to do something. If we can on our own, brush our teeth because of our own interest in personal hygiene and wellbeing, why can’t we do things that are in our best interest even though it may require a bit more effort? For instance, we can minimise food wastage and try to compost where we can; we can opt to not use straws; and if we really need to use single use cutlery, we could opt for biodegradable cutlery.

It is also equally important for us to segregate material that has recycling potential and put them into the correct recycling containers. This provides a starting point for a circular economy model. There may be some inconvenience but let’s honestly ask ourselves, how much extra effort does it really take to be environmentally responsible? Consumers also drive manufacturing decisions. If consumers choose to not buy products that will have a long term harm on the environment, those producers will have to either adapt or close down. Consumers need to also accept that something made from recycled material is also equally good as something made from virgin material. This, in turn, creates market demand and underpins the development of a circular economy.

Role of Manufacturers

Manufacturers are another major stakeholder. Products should be designed to make future recycling easy. Where possible, they should use as much recycled materials in their production process. This, in turn, creates a sustainable end market for recovered material, thereby encouraging a circular economy. Yes, sometimes quality of recycled material is not fantastic, but where an end market is well developed, suppliers of recycled material have an incentive to provide high quality recycled materials to manufacturers.

To capture feedstock for recycling, manufacturers could provide take-back programmes to encourage closing the loop recycling to support the circular economy. This is already happening in some countries. What is in it for the manufacturer? In the long run, the above will help reduce their production cost and improve profit margins. Today, virgin materials are priced without taking into account pollution or other future harm costs. These prices will likely change… upwards. For instance, we now see the move to impose carbon tax by some governments, and this will eventually be reflected in higher costs for raw materials. By actively encouraging the development of a circular economy, they will secure for themselves a source of cheaper raw materials in the long run.

Role of Recyclers

Good quality recycled materials is important to ensure the development of a circular economy. A common complaint about the use of recycled material in production is quality. Whilst the actual product has a part of play, so does the recycling process. By ensuring good technology is used, and by implementing a quality assurance programme, recycling companies can ensure they produce good quality recycled material. Over time, producers will move towards using materials that can be recycled numerous times, but if the recycling processing is ineffective/inefficient, the output will still be of a low quality. For example, e-scrap is made from good quality material. This is because electronics and electrical equipment have to comply with relatively high standards before they can be sold. By putting in proper machinery with a proper quality assurance programme, an e-scrap facility can be converted to an urban mine producing materials that are similar quality (if not better) than that delivered to manufacturing facilities from natural mines.

Role of Governments

Regulations encouraging use of recycled material are important. Minimum specifications for recycled material used can help to create circular economy markets. An example would be specifications on food grade plastic in terms of micron and composition. This creates consumer acceptance and encourages market development. Governments also have to consider some form of pollution cost. Today, no one is paying the costs that come in the future such as global warming resulting from today’s activities. Carbon tax is an option but it may be politically difficult to do. Atmospheric pollution doesn’t stay in one place, and for carbon tax to work, all countries on this planet ideally need to agree. Then there is a question of ensuring the tax collected is channelled back for the correct use. An option is to put in some form of costs for final products that will somehow land up within the country itself. Yes, there will be push back on items that may be sent to another country as second hand goods but no system is perfect, and it is a start somewhere. Money collected can be used to support close loop activities that may not be financially viable initially, or to support development of new/nascent technologies that will find solutions for “difficult to recycle” products; or to provide more recycling collection points to capture more raw materials for recycling. By encouraging the development of a country’s circular economy, jobs will be created and to a certain extent “raw material” security can be ensured.

The reality is, even with circular economy, there will be products that will have no recycling potential and will have to be disposed. However, if done systematically, the volume of such products will be small. In addition, such products will be flushed out and made visible to all. This will in turn lead to either discouraging the use of products or the development of new technologies to deal with them effectively. We are now at a tipping point. The last few decades have demonstrated the damage we are causing to the environment, and the potential political and social unrest it may cause in future. In the long run though, it is about the survival of the human species, and respecting the laws of nature. The development of a circular economy would go a long way to help this.

The author is a Singaporean with almost 30 years of international environmental experience in developed and developing countries. He has grown award winning, multi-million USD businesses in 6 different countries, and has served in senior management roles for mainboard listed companies, privately held conglomerates and state owned enterprises. Besides waste management, Harbinder’s other interests are technology, AI, robotics and consumer engagement. He is an investor and board member of several companies. Harbinder has a LLB (Hons) from the University of Manchester, UK and a MBA from the University of Chicago, US. He can be contacted at hsingh@chicagobooth.edu