December 2022, Nature.com,
Reducing our waste’s impact on the planet requires new technology and materials — and, more importantly, a complete rethink of how we incentivize the production and use of resources.
Producing a laptop computer that weighs a few kilograms takes around one tonne of raw metal, plastic and silicon. Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production doubled, but the number of times the average garment was worn before being discarded decreased by 36%. The body of a modern car contains more than a dozen steel and aluminium alloys, putting up huge barriers to recycling it.
These are just three of many stark statistics that illustrate the wastefulness of our current ‘linear’ economic model, which is based on extracting virgin resources, processing them, consuming them and dumping them when they are no longer useful. This unsustainable approach is bad for the climate, for nature and for human health — and ultimately hits us in the wallet. One estimate by the global consultancy Accenture in 2015 suggested that US$4.5 trillion of extra value could be unlocked by creating products using ‘waste’ as a resource.
That is the grand vision of a ‘circular economy’, in which materials are recirculated and maintain the highest value possible, and as much waste as possible is eliminated. As detailed in a series of editorials this year and in a Nature Outlook on the circular economy published last month, innovations in materials and processes are making circularity a more realistic proposition in many sectors. Many businesses are making enthusiastic noises, too, scenting both new revenue streams and a public-relations win.
Yet practical implementations of circular principles so far amount to tinkering at the edges. Some serious thinking is needed about what must happen to make circularity a universal guiding principle. The answer is: a lot.