If you have been in any large brand or retail store in South Africa, then you might have seen the plastic bags with a bold tag written "Recyclable." Undoubtedly, this branding has made many shoppers aware of the importance of converting what appears to be waste into reusable materials. Good as this is, we need to understand that we are only fixing the symptoms of the environmental crisis and not the root cause. We need a genuinely circular economy to fight and vanquish our current ecological challenges.
So what is the distinction between recycling and circular economy?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation clearly explains the difference; recycling is the action or process of converting waste into reusable material. Recycling begins at the end of the value chain - the 'get rid' stage of a product's lifecycle. However, the circular economy goes right back to the beginning to prevent waste and pollution from being created in the first place.
I have realized that each time I engage with an audience and mention the term circular economy, almost everyone in the room begins speaking and asking about recycling. Indeed, recycling does contribute to the circular economy, but it is only one of the last alternatives for a circular economy. Therefore, we are setting ambitious targets to increase recycling rates primarily to handle the products that already exist in the value chain, so we keep reusing, repurposing, and ultimately reducing raw material extraction from mother earth.
A truly circular economy goes beyond and above recycling; it is about redesigning how we produce, distribute, consume and collect goods and services. This economy involves repairing, reusing, repairing, leasing, refurbishing, sharing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible to eliminate single-use.
Here is an unusual example of how sharing can significantly contribute towards a circular economy: Before 2009, anyone wishing to travel from point A to point B privately had to buy a car. This model has been common for ages; hence car manufacturers built their business models based on the number of vehicles sold. Unfortunately, this meant that it was and still isn't in the manufacturer's interest to build a car that will be reused, recycled, or repurposed. So if your vehicle is damaged, you need to buy a new one. What is even more disappointing is private cars sit parked 95% of the time. However, after 2009, the likes of Uber started to disrupt this. Suddenly, anyone wishing to travel privately can share a car that isn't theirs.
Imagine if this was common practice, car manufacturers would build cars, not for a single owner but sharing; their business model would not be based on the number of vehicles sold but on how long a car exists. Even after the end of the car's life, the manufacturer would have built it so that the body parts of the car can be easily removed and placed in another car preventing waste entirely.
The circular economy is a $4.5 trillion opportunity, and yet, today, only 8.6 percent of the world is circular, according to the 2021 Circularity Gap Report. Hence, I am fully convinced that transitioning towards a more circular economy isn't just suitable for the environment; it is also fantastic for our economy.