Just a fraction of global resources are re-used according to new research - but can we close the loop in time?
In October a major UN report confirmed what most of the climate world already knew: that the carbon reduction pledges made by nations at the Paris Summit in 2015 are insufficient if the world is to avert dangerous global warming.
Instead, the pledges will only deliver a third of the emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and the paper honed in on the policies needed to close the emissions "gap" between those promises and the reductions needed.
Now a team of researchers at the Dutch think tank Circle Economy is this week attempting to get the world's economic, political, and business elite gathered at the Davos Summit to think in the same way about the world's resources.
It has released research today on the so-called 'circularity gap', a new way of measuring the difference each year between the resources we use and discard.
In the midst of growing global concern over the rising tide of plastic pollution, it makes for worrying reading. According to Circle Economy, more than 90 per cent of the raw materials used globally are not cycled back into the economy, with just nine per cent headed for some kind of reuse.
The paper finds that resource extraction for materials such as food, energy, and ore has increased 12-fold since 1900 and 2015, and is forecast to double over the next 35 years through to 2050. Yet just 8.4 gigatonnes (Gt) of resources, out of 92.8 Gt entering the global economy in 2015, were reused - mainly via composting, recycling, water treatment or land application.
A further 36Gt were put into long-term stock such as buildings, which leaves 51.9 Gt of short-lived waste unaccounted for, left to disperse into the environment as emissions or unrecoverable waste.
As well preventing massive environmental damage from such waste streams, closing the circularity gap could therefore also have a major impact on climate change. The International Resource Panel has suggested a resource-efficient development trajectory could cut global emissions by a staggering 72 per cent, while still maintaining economic growth.
But "major trend corrections" are needed to get the global economy on to a path towards circularity, the paper warns.
It sets out four steps to help bridge the gap:
- Build a "global coalition for action" from progressive businesses, governments, NGOs and academics, which will deliver an annual report measuring progress towards a circular economy.
- Develop a global target for circularity, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and emission-reduction targets.
- Translate global targets into local pathways that spell out how businesses and local governments should be changing on the ground.
- Gather further research into how circular change can impact other issues such as climate change mitigation.
With the explosion in concern over the volume of plastic waste created each year, momentum for change is building. Leading corporates such as L'Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, and Walmart have today reaffirmed their promise to use 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025, while national governments around the world have begun to ban plastic items such as cotton buds, microbeads and plastic bags in a bid to stem the tide of waste.
And today, in an effort to boost recycling rates of raw materials, circular economy charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will award innovations such as compostable packets made from renewable materials and nano-engineered recyclable films money from a $1m prize fund.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed the winners of its Circular Materials Challenge, run in partnership with NineSigma, today in Davos to the inventors of some of the most promising innovations to boost plastic recycling.
The challenge focused on lightweight, flexible plastic packaging - such as the type used for packets or sachets - which is too difficult or expensive to recycle because of its layers of different materials.
Winners included the University of Pittsburgh, for its work applying nano-engineering to create a recyclable material to replace multi-layered, non-recyclable packaging, and Aronax Technologies Spain, a Spanish firm behind a magnetic additive that creates better air and moisture insulation in packaging. Aronax says its invention will help protect sensitive products such as coffee and medical products, while still being possible to recycle.
Meanwhile VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and a coalition of recycling firms - Full Cycle Bioplastics, Elk Packaging, and Associated Labels and Packaging - both won for their compostable packaging made from renewable materials such as forestry waste. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC was also commended for its creation of a new compostable silicon and biopolymer coating that can protect biopolymer packaging and food against going off too quickly.
Each winner will receive $200,000 and the chance to join a 12-month accelerator programme to work with experts to scale up their inventions. When taken together and scaled to their full potential, the winning innovations could prevent the equivalent of 100 garbage bags per second of plastic waste being created, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
"These winning innovations show what's possible when the principles of a circular economy are embraced, Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the eponymous foundation, said in a statement. "Clean-ups continue to play an important role in dealing with the consequences of the waste plastic crisis, but we know we must do more. We urgently need solutions that address the root causes of the problem, not just the symptoms."
Climate change and sustainable development is expected to be a major focus of talks for leaders at this week's summit in Davos, with the official programme scheduling high level discussions on green energy, corporate responsibility, extreme weather and sustainable development. Addresses from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also likely to touch on climate matters.
Meanwhile on Wednesday major companies, organisations and governments are expected to launch new partnerships to tackle e-waste and plastic pollution, as well as pioneer new circular business models and markets.
It's an encouraging start, but as today's research shows, action will need to dramatically scale up over the coming years if the global economy is ever going to start to closing both the carbon and the circularity gap.
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