Most of the products we buy and consume are bound to reach their ‘end of life’ at some stage. To date, business and industry have customarily followed an economic model that is built on the premise of ‘take-make-consume and dispose’. When goods worn out or are no longer desired, they are often discarded as waste. Such a linear model also assumes that raw materials and resources are abundant, available and cheap to dispose of. However, the improper disposal of waste in landfills could cause health risks for society. Similarly, industrial and mining activities are causing resource depletion as well as pollution problems. The incineration of waste products also creates the need to dispose of residual toxic metals, including lead and mercury, which could also contaminate groundwater. Notwithstanding, it is envisaged that the reserves of some of globe’s key elements and minerals shall be depleted within the next century. At the same time, land degradation is constantly impacting on the natural environment, as arable land continues to disappear. In addition, plastic waste dumped into our seas and oceans is responsible for the deaths of millions of fish, seabirds, and sea mammals. Furthermore, the warming of the earth’s climate, that is one of the outcomes of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, is yet another serious problem facing today’s society.
The world’s growing populations and their increased wealth is inevitably leading to greater demands for limited and scarce resources. Boulding’s famous paper from 1966, “The economics of the coming spaceship Earth” anticipated that man will need to find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material. He went on to suggest that at the other end the effluents of the system are passed out into noneconomic reservoirs, including the atmosphere and the oceans. Of course, these ecological environments are not appropriated and do not enter into the exchange system. These contentious issues underline the perennial conflict between economic development and environmental protection. Today’s society and its economic models still rely too much on resource extraction and depletion. If solutions are to be found, the public must be encouraged to alter a number of its irresponsible behaviours.
In this light, this contribution suggests that there is scope in using resources more efficiently; as better eco-designs, waste prevention and reuse of materials can possibly bring net savings for businesses, while also reducing emissions. In fact, WEF (2014) indicated that a shift towards CE can generate over US$ 500 million in material cost savings, 100,000 new jobs and prevent 100 million tons of waste globally, within five years. This means that there is a business case for CE as significant resource efficiencies could bring a new wave of smart, sustainable growth and competitiveness.
The basis of the CE economic approach lies in extracting the embedded costs of resources; through re-using, repairing, refurbishing, recycling and restoring materials and products throughout their life cycle. Arguably, what used to be regarded as ‘waste’ could be turned into a valuable resource for business and industry. The CE concept could be perceived as a response to the aspiration for sustainable growth in the context of increased regulatory pressures toward controlled operations management and environmentally responsible practices. Therefore, the setting of coherent policy frameworks and appropriate legislation could help to raise the bar for more responsible behaviours amongst public and private organisations.
Although the circular economy is a relatively new notion, there could be potential pitfalls in its policy formulation and application. Moreover, businesses and industries would probably resent being imposed any mandatory changes in their established behaviours. It is very likely that they would opt to remain in their status quo, where they are ‘locked-in’ to their traditional linear models. For the time being, many companies could not be knowledgeable about the CE perspective. The terms that are actually being used to describe both linear and circular economies are potentially misleading, as both combinations already exist, but in very different contexts.
Arguably, the long term investments for an active engagement in sustainable CE practices could possibly result in significant improvements in operational efficiencies. However, CE approaches may still be perceived as novel, risky and complex. Notwithstanding, the prices of green technologies do not necessarily reflect the real costs of resources and raw materials. Macro-environmental factors, including political, economic, social and technological issues could also impact on CE behaviours. Moreover, there may be policy makers and regulators who may not want to support the transition towards the circular economy. Of course, it would be better if governments, civil societies and the respective industries work in tandem to resolve the contentious issues relating to the increased scarce and limited resources, across the globe.
In conclusion, the CE concept has the potential to maximise the functioning of global eco-systems as it could result in lower, and less volatile costs in resource consumption; leading to significant benefits to societal well-being. Arguably, CE has potential to bring a new wave of operational improvements and better productivity levels in business and industry. There are implications for the re-alignment of economic and management practice with well laid-out ecological and social models. Future research should begin to incorporate the latest ecological knowledge into our understanding of naturalistic economic models and systems, without silencing the social and human dimension.
The complete version of this post is available here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/circular-economy-agenda-mark-camilleri
By Mark Camilleri