From Waste To Input: What Is The Circular Economy?
Just this May, an American explorer descended to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench — and what did he discover there? Apart from amazing shrimp-like creatures, he found a plastic bag.
Plastic waste has reached epidemic proportions; the United Nations estimates that 100 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans. It’s within this context that a new economic model is being put forward that doesn’t come at the expense of the environment.
What Is The Circular Economy?
The circular economy seeks to replace the old linear model of “make-consume-dispose”, which has existed since the industrial revolution.
“A transition to a circular economy provides a real opportunity to transform the current wasteful economy to a more regenerative, inclusive and equitable one,” says Sally-Anne Kasner, director of environmental consultancy, Circular-Vision.
The circular economy model seeks to decouple global economic development from finite resource consumption. British sailor Ellen MacArthur has been one of the leading voices of the call for a transition to the circular economy, based on her experiences of seeing waste at sea. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as “one that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times”.
The move towards a circular economy is already being embraced by a number of leading South African companies — not least because it can help to create new revenue streams and business models.
“The linear production model where raw materials are converted into products that are disposed of after use is becoming unsustainable, as we are quickly realising that the natural resources we have are finite,” states Emmanuel Kasese, programme manager of the Western Cape Industrial Symbiosis Programme (WISP) at GreenCape.
Through its intervention, the award-winning WISP, which is funded by the City of Cape Town, has achieved a number of success stories in which businesses not only reduce their waste, but also lower their costs and improve their profitability. The principles can apply to any product development process.
WISP worked with one local ice-cream manufacturer that was disposing of 2 500 litres of egg whites a year as part of its production process. WISP introduced the manufacturer to a confectionery business that needed egg whites for its meringues and fudge and a deal was struck. Both firms profit from the arrangement and there is less waste.
“Circular economy activities have a wider economic impact as they can spawn new industries, like the recycling industry,” comments Kasese. “This, in turn, boosts the economy and jobs are created that can increase the participation rate of the poor and previously disenfranchised.”
Another WISP success story is Cape Town’s Suzi Textiles, which now sells its offcuts to a KwaZulu-Natal company, which, in turn, reprocesses them to make carpet underfelt.
“A circular economy reconceptualises waste as an input into another productive or restorative process,” explains Jules Newton of the Green Business Value Chain at Avocado Vision. “In this way, a single material can be reused multiple times, rather than being created with a once-off use and disposal lifecycle.”
Embracing The Circular Model
Two large beverage companies have also committed to the goals of the circular economy: SA Breweries (now merged with AB InBev) and Coca-Cola. Both have embarked on ambitious programmes to reduce their post-consumption waste to zero.
“AB InBev has set global sustainability goals that by 2025, 100 per cent of our products will be in packaging that is returnable, or made from majority-recycled content,” says David Grant, head of sustainable development at SAB and AB InBev Africa.
Already over 80 per cent of SAB’s beer is sold in returnable glass bottles, which can be reused multiple times — the ultimate circular model. “By working with our glass and can suppliers, we are also increasing the amount of recycled content in our bottles and cans, which are currently at 46 and 70 per cent respectively,” Grant says.
Coca-Cola has a similar commitment to reduce waste, given that so many of its popular cold drinks are sold in plastic bottles. Announced in January 2018, its World Without Waste vision is “about mobilising our efforts to ensure that for every bottle or can we sell, each one is collected and recycled — in other words, a 100 per cent recovery and recycling rate by 2030”, says Casper Durandt, head of sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola Southern and East Africa.
Like SAB, Coke’s aim is to increase recycling in their packaging to 50 per cent.
Durant mentions the example of PETCO, founded in 2004 to recover and recycle plastic. According to Durandt, more than 2.15 billion bottles were collected and recycled in South Africa in 2017, saving 578 000m3 of landfill space.
Because of the huge headache caused by plastic pollution, many plastic producers are working together to reduce waste. Polyco aims to promote the collection and recycling of post-consumer polyolefin packaging containers, says its CEO, Mandy Naude.
“Polyco has invested R37.3-million over the past five years into recycling infrastructure and innovation. This has resulted in over 50 000 tons of plastic being recycled in South Africa,” she says. But the main focus, she believes, is on making containers that can be easily recycled: “We facilitate the design of product packaging that can be recycled again and again.”
Disrupting Business As Usual
Circular-Vision’s Kasner (right), is adamant that the circular economy is about more than just recycling.
“It won’t be enough to just tweak the current linear system and focus only on recycling,” she says. “It’s fundamental that a cascading approach is adopted and the first approach is to redesign for reusability, refurbishment and repair.”
For Kasner and others, it’s about disrupting the norm, even for difficult materials like packaging. “Packaging may offer many more business model opportunities than the current system, but producers and retailers are simply not willing to investigate due to the potential disruption,” she says.
Avocado Vision’s Newton concurs. “Companies should challenge themselves to find ways of sourcing inputs that create circular economies and virtuous cycles,” she argues. “We need to change our mindset to think systemically about the products we create and package to see their next-life use as part of their design, rather than dealing with plastic that shows up in rivers and on beaches across the world.”