Sunday, April 14, 2024

Embracing the circular economy to enhance sustainability

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With the aim of reaching net zero by 2050, managing waste through the three-step model of reduce, reuse and recycle is not enough to prevent waste from overwhelming the planet. Although this three-step model of recycling once indicated our capacity to work together to combat climate change for the greater good of the planet, this approach is far too simplistic given the current climate crisis we are facing. This calls for a re – evaluation of our current recycling practices for it reflects the shortcomings of the existing recycling practices.

For the longest time, industries particularly the manufacturing industry, have relied on the linear economic model. This economic model is based on extraction of raw materials, processing them into finished products and distributing them. The finished products are bought, used and disposed of by the consumer which has resulted in a continuous cycle of customers purchasing and then discarding products. The poor disposal of waste has created a major risk to human health and the ecosystem. According to UNEP, (2017) an estimated 11.2 billion tonnes of solid waste are collected globally every year, with organic waste accounting for approximately 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, in the year 2020, approximately a third of the 2.24 billion solid waste produced was not an environmentally sustainable manner, hence increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases (UNEP, 2022).

The linear economic model mainly focuses on profit maximization with no concern for the environmental footprint and its consequences. Profit maximization is achieved by minimizing the cost of production and the perpetual reliance on consumers to buy products that will be disposed of. As a consequence, This has placed a pressure on the countries that contribute raw materials and physical labour to the production of products. It has also significantly contributed to a large amount of throughout the production process. Over time, this economic model has been challenged due to increase in demand for manufactured goods while raw materials continue to be more scarce and the climate crisis has become more prominent. Due to the criticisms of the traditional linear economic model, various industries have begun to value new processes that minimize waste and lengthen the product life cycle which known as circular economy.

The circular economy prioritizes sustainable production and consumption in which raw materials are kept within the production cycles for a longer and these materials can be used repeatedly, hence generating less waste. The sole purpose of this model is to ensure the resources utilized are kept in the economy for the longest time possible, in order to use the waste generated as raw material in other industries. To achieve the circular economy, it is based on the 7r’s: redesign, reduce, reuse, repair, renovate, recycle and recover. The redesigning component refers to designing products in order to reduce the consumption of raw materials within the manufacturing process, lengthen the lifecycle as well as generate less waste.

Reducing the consumption of resources leads to minimal waste generation therefore reducing the impact on the environment. Products can be reused and transferred to other users to extend the lifecycle and parts of product that is broken can be repaired to prevent the use of new raw materials. However, old products can be renovated and transformed into new products additionally, old material can be recycled through separation of different parts which can be used as raw material to develop new products. For non – recyclable material, can be converted into a useful product which is referred to as the recovery component.

The 7r’s of the circular economy, has shifted focus from profit maximisation to promoting long – term sustainability in product life cycles. It promotes resource independence whereby the local resources that are kept in the product lifecycle for the longest time possible which results in less dependence on imported raw materials. The circular economy reduces emission of greenhouse gases due to minimal waste generation and the prevents the exhaustion of natural resources. This calls for the integration of the circular economy into business models across all industries. Companies that have adopted the circular economy into their business model are able to gain a competitive advantage in terms of incurring a lower cost of production for the material utilized comes from recycled materials given that waste is no longer viewed as a liability but an asset.

For companies to implement their circular economy it is crucial re – evaluate their business operations by looking at their carbon emission as well as energy and water consumption to identify areas of reduction. Not only does an environmentally conscious company have to focus on its internal operations, it also implies that companies have to be fully cognizant of their supplier’s involvement to mitigate their climate impacts. Lastly, companies should identify areas of implementation within their production processes and apply the 7r’s of the circular economy. If implemented correctly, companies would be able to create new efficiencies and develop a sustainable future.

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungaihttp://www.edwardmungai.com/
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via mailto:edward@edwardmungai.com

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