Linking the Circular Economy to Sustainable Development – an SDG perspective

Over the last years, we have become familiar with the term „sustainability“ and at least those working in the sector are familiar with the „Sustainable Development Goals“. But yet, we face difficulties in measuring these and what sustainability means to begin with. Does sustainability imply to act ecological, to stop buying and moving into a rural house, while maintaining self-sufficiency? And if yes, does that mean we can simply change the system? Likely not, because in some ways we are all connected to the system, whether it is us using renewable energy sources to power our homes (who produces the means to do so ? where can it be bought? and how is energy even transferred? ) or whether we make use of other public services like hospitals, the legal system, medicine, transportation, education and IT services?

At the same time we are aware that consuming and producing -as we do now – has drastic effects on our health and the planet and we therefore need to take into consideration more sustainable approaches. Yet, putting sustainability into practice seems difficult and my favorite way of doing so is by looking at the circular economy.

Why the Circular Economy? The Circular Economy looks at keeping our resources as long as possible in the loop and by changing the way we design, produce, consume and dispose goods and services. The circular economy therefore appears  „sustainable“ by design and adds economic incentives for actors to transition instead of „good-will“ only.

How can we link the Circular Economy to Sustainable Development?

Dictionaries define poverty as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money, means of support or material possessions” (1)(2). Using circular approaches could help to lift people out of poverty by creating new markets. Examples are new jobs that focus on waste-products accross the supply-chain such as transforming agricultural waste into value added products. An example is the transformation of coconut-husk into chips or fiber-boards for the construction industry – instead of burning it. Or the production of paper from agricultural waste.

According to the EllenMacArthurFoundation, 10% of the global population continues to go hungry. In a circular economy, food is designed to cycle, so the by-products from one enterprise provides inputs for the next. Depending on the stage of the supply chain, end of life food waste can be used to produce new foods like pasta made from bread waste. Another example is the opening of restaurants and supermarkets that sell and transform produce that does not meet the typical “beauty and quality standards”.

In a health assessment published by the World Health Organization (WHO), direct and indirect benefits of the Circular Economy can be related to a reduction of environmental impacts of manufacturing processes (by improving air, water and soil quality and by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions). Other positive impacts could deprive from a greater focus on material health of products such as by developing bio-based products, i.e. compostable bags and building materials.

The circular economy makes it easier to observe our constantly changing world comprehensively and offers a good foundation for lifelong learning and the education of new professionals. What better way is there to introduce business models or for the CE/sustainability then at the educational level already? Preparing our current generation to become agents of change for a world with wicked challenges and where creative /entrepreneurial solutions are needed – see Windesheim Honours College NL

Gender equality, besides being a fundamental human right, is essential to achieve peaceful societies, with full human potential and sustainable development (4). Bamboo, for example is a bio-based/cricular material, that can be easily grown and transformed on homesteads and thereby helps women to create an income – frequently responsible for household tasks. In addition, bamboo can be used to create new jobs and materials that feed into other sectors and provide women with an economic opportunity not to return to their abusing (GBV) homes.

Loss of productivity to water- and sanitation-related diseases costs many countries up to 5% of GDP (WHO 2012). Universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene would reduce the global disease burden by 10% (5). One way the Circular Economy can help, is through the development of applications that collect and transform human waste into value; i.e. energy produced through anerobic digestion systems and the promotion of, for instance, compostable toilets.

Modern society depends on reliable and affordable energy services to function smoothly and to develop equitably (5). As the demand for energy is growing, new ways of producing energy need to be found. A fantastic way of creating circular and affordable energy is through the transformation of biomass waste products into energy. Biomass is a renewable energy source to begin with and waste will always exist (6).

According to the EllenMacArthurFoundation it is estimated that, in the sectors of complex medium-lived products (such as mobile phones and washing machines) in the EU, the annual net-material cost savings opportunity amounts up to USD 630 billion. For fast moving consumer goods (such as household cleaning products), there is a material cost-saving potential of up to USD 700 billion globally (7). This does not yet take into consideration the amount of new jobs that could be created i.e. through innovation and new industries.

Infrastructure has a major influence on whether resources can be preserved to use again or whether they are lost forever(8). A few Circular Economy approaches are the building of modular houses, renting of materials, LEGO like buildings or the use of bio-based materials for entire buildings like up-cycled paper brickets, wood and bamboo (reinforced concrete). Did you know that UNMigration uses bamboo for emergency shelter?

Inequalities in income and wealth are severe and have been widening globally. Businesses are engines for economic growth, having the potential to create jobs, foster economic activity through their value chain, and contribute tax revenues for public services and infrastructure (9). The circular economy can be used to create employment opportunities accross the supply-chain and by creating new jobs and markets in producer regions, thereby promoting reduced inequalities across the globe.

 According to the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, cities consume over 75% of natural resources, produce over 50% of global waste and emit between 60-80% of greenhouse gases. Cities are places, where most challenges are encountered, but they are also the places to find the most suitable solutions. Cities can serve as innovation hubs by experimenting with circular buildings and the integration of animals into cities to feed on grass instead of using machinery as example.

Circular Economy implies developing new business models such as paying for performance, designing products for using them as long as possible, reusing and remanufacturing products at the end of service life, and recovering/recycling a maximum of resources to avoid waste in production, supply, use and disposal (10). Could we rent clothes, furnuniture and other products and return them for a discount or a new product? Yes!

As populations, economies and standards of living grow, so does the cumulative level of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions (11). By focusing on renewable resources and replacing the use of finite materials we can avoid an increase in GHGs emissions. An example is the building with bio-digradable or recycable materials that return to the manufacturer at the end of the life – This could be particular relevant for the hotel industry, which tends to refurbish the interior i.e. tiles at an average of five years.

The world’s oceans – their temperature, chemistry, currents and life – drive global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind (14) The Circular Economy supports to keep our waters clean and profitable such as by using treated waste water for factory cooling towers instead of freshwaster. This helps the environment and keeps factory costs down as treated waste water is 50% cheaper than freshwater (15). Other examples are the replacement of plastics with bio-degradable materials.

A flourishing life on land is the foundation for our life on this planet. We have caused severe damage to it through deforestation, loss of natural habitats and land degradation (16). We can halter deforestation and still create profit. An example is IKEA in Australia that provides customer with a discount for returning their old furniture. The furniture is up-cycled and/or resold at a discounted rate. In addition, green designs i.e. rooftops bring nature back to cities and help to cycle air at a discounted rate. (Imagine the cost of treating respiratory infections due to pollution and the cost saved).

We cannot hope for sustainable development without peace, stability, human rights and effective governance, based on the rule of law. However, lack of employment and economic growth opportunities, often seem to play a barrier for sustainable development and peace and thus, leads more likely to corrupted behaviours. With the CEs huge job market potential and slower resource consumption, it could be expected that corrupted behaviours decrease and more financing for good governance was made available.

Circular Economy is one of the 14 themes for the Urban Agenda for the EU partnerships established as part of the Pact of Amsterdam. Several of the partnerships have developed actions to reduce barriers for a transition towards a circular economy in cities (17). Nowadays, where challanges are complex and unstructured, and supply-chains connected more than ever, partnerships are essential. An example is the complex construction industry in which different glues, different types of materials and building ownerships play a huge role in the circular potential of a building.

Of course, the Circular Economy is extremely complex, but what I like most about it is, that it has multiple solutions for complex problems. We just need to look at it from different perspectives and view our global economy as an interactive and creative system. We don’t necessarily have to eradicate the system, but we can work with it and begin with circular changes step by step, consume a little less, produce a little better, cycle materials as long as possible and think in systems [and ideally bio-based].