We live in a throw-away culture. People throw away about 3.5 million tons of waste a day – an estimated 880 000 tons of this is plastic.
Businesses produce goods for sale and the packaging for those goods. We buy them, use them and then throw them away. And it doesn’t all end up in landfills. The volume of waste entering the ocean is enough to cover every foot of coastline in the world with five full bags of trash. This is a very linear model of producing and consuming. The consequences are dire.
Globally, and particularly in South Africa, waste management systems cannot keep up the amount of waste we produce. It leaks into the natural environment, polluting our landscapes and oceans. It kills wildlife, including marine life. It leaks dangerous gases as it decomposes into the air and atmosphere. Landfills generate 5% of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. And we are using natural resources like water, oil, coal and metals to make these throw-away items twice as fast as they can regenerate.
A new way of thinking
We obviously need to rethink this way of making and using goods if we don’t want to suffocate ourselves and the planet! Theories about a circular economy started emerging in the 1980s. These theories used natural ecosystems as an example of what we should be doing. Nature reuses and recycles chemicals and nutrients to generate new raw materials – there is no such thing as waste in Nature.
The circular economy focuses on designing and using products in a way that they can be re-used, preferably many times over. This way, the resources that go into things are able to generate economic benefits over and over again. The main principles of circular economy thinking are:
- Using resources like energy, water, metals and oil sustainably
- Preserving and extending what is already made
- Using waste as a resource
- Rethinking the business model
- Designing for the future
- Collaborating to create shared value
Using a circular economy approach would help us to recapture the value of the material for reuse or repurposing. This is not just an environmental good, it makes business sense. The value of fast-moving consumer goods thrown away each year is about $2.6 trillion – an estimated 80% of the material value. It is possible that we could recapture about $1.8 trillion of that value.
A circular economy is based on sustainable design principles and a focus on re-use and reducing waste. This means designing products or the entire business model for reuse and/or recycling. For example, Unilever is exploring modular packaging, design for disassembly and reassembly, wider use of refills, recycling and using post-consumer recycled materials in innovative ways. They are piloting a laundry detergent dispensing machine in French supermarkets. Other companies are moving to lease models to retain responsibility for the product throughout its lifecycle. Desso, a flooring company, offers a leasing model and it now treats old carpets as valuable commodities recycling carpet fibres into new carpets and reselling carpet backing as a component in roads and roofs. In South Africa, Tire Shoes turns old tyres into sturdy shoe soles that last for more than a decade. This reduces the volume of tyres sent to landfill or burnt in backyards, thus reducing air pollution. Many Capetonians will have embraced circular economy thinking during the recent drought and water restrictions – re-using available water strategically for washing, cooking and sanitation purposes.
What can you do?
We, as consumers, are very powerful. We can act in our own homes to reduce our waste, re-use or repurpose where possible. We can consciously choose to buy products made from recyclable material and make sure it goes to a recycling centre and is recycled. And we can ask our retailers, brands and government to embrace circular economy thinking. Make a start this Plastic Free July by joining our #PlasticFreeMzansi challenge and give up the top three Dirty Dozen items – plastic bottles, earbud sticks and chip packets – we find on our beach cleanups.