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SUSTAINABILITY | 22.12.2020

What obstacles are hindering the circular economy? 

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This economic model, which proposes a more rational approach to production and consumption, is coming up against some barriers.

Although the Western concept of a circular economy appeared in the 1980s, it didn’t really gain force as one of the most appropriate ways to curb environmental degradation and thus climate change until the last decade.

However, implementing this model on a larger scale is proving to be a difficult task. This is for many reasons, although perhaps the most significant challenge is moving on from the traditional linear economic model that is based on something as simple and devastating as the “throwaway” system.

 

Preventing waste

The European Parliament offers a brief definition of the circular economy, which explains what it is and gives a clue as to why this type of economy comes about: “The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible to create added value. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.” It adds that this “implies reducing waste to a minimum” so that “When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible.”

As was pointed out earlier, this economy is a long way from the throwaway approach. Furthermore, humans are the only living beings that generate garbage—and a lot of it—on the planet. To take one example, in Latin American countries alone, each inhabitant generates 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of garbage every day, which translates into the worrying figure of 541,000 metric tons. Worst of all, this is only 10 percent of the overall figure.

 

The mirror of nature

Therefore, it can be said that the circular economy is based on nature itself. As the Regional Coordinator of Resource Efficiency for Latin America and the Caribbean at the UN Environment Program, Adriana Zacarías referred to this in an interview given to this supranational body, saying: “Everything that nature generates is an input or food for another organism. Think of the forest, the leaves of a tree become compost for the land; a dead animal, another comes and eats it. Everything is a closed flow in which everything flows.”

That is why she states that the circular economy shows us that we need to change our current production and consumption habits, which are based on “a linear economy of take-make-consume-throw away.” In fact, the goal is “to close the production cycles and maintain a steady flow of natural resources.”

The benefits of the circular economy

Before going into the problems and challenges that this model faces, it’s important to point out the main advantages of implementing a circular economy model.

  • It prevents the “not so far-off” shortage of raw materials. The constant and growing demand for some raw materials that are not exactly infinite will lead to some of them beginning to disappear. The circular economy prevents this rampant consumption.
  • Less pollution. Obtaining and using these raw materials requires energy, which means emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This leads to a deterioration in air quality and thus contributes to climate change. What’s more, less waste is generated with the circular economy.
  • Greater savings. Along with improvements to the environment and the quality of life of human beings, there is also an economic aspect. This is even less surprising, since, according to the European Union, waste prevention, ecodesign and reuse would lead to net savings of 600 billion euros. This would also result in a 2–4 percent reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions. And this isn’t the only advantage. Another benefit is that up to 580,000 new jobs would be created across the EU. Along with these estimates, we must also mention a report for the UN prepared by independent scientists, which explains that the circular economy would be able to reduce industrial waste by 80–99 percent in various sectors. This would also be reflected in a 79–99 percent decline in emissions.

Challenges and problems

Having seen the benefits of the circular economy and the interest that many governments have in implementing the model wherever possible, one wonders what the main obstacles are that are causing its adoption to be such a slow process. The majority of experts refer to three very well-defined obstacles:

  • At the political and regulatory level. While many government entities say that they are working on adopting circular economy models, there is not enough support when it comes to the crunch. According to the report “Paving the way for a circular economy: insights on status and potentials” drawn up by the European Environment Agency (EEA), countries use regulation essentially for recycling, energy recovery and waste management. However, anything related to ecodesign, consumption and reuse has less stringent policies and fails to go further than labels and information campaigns. As a matter of fact, we need to coordinate the different standards that exist today in order to bring about change in the right way.
  • At the cultural level. The second major impediment lies in the consumers themselves, who are used to the throwaway model. And, however much they may take sustainability into account, they must change to an approach that wasn’t “valid” until now: recycling and reusing products, paying per use rather than owning items. They must get their heads around the fact that remanufactured products are of the same quality as new products.
  • At the technological level. The circular economy’s third major stumbling block is the lack of adequate technological mechanisms. According to the EEA report, monitoring progress in the circular economy requires greater investment, especially to obtain relevant data both in the production phase and in the consumption phase (the life cycles of each product). In other words, both the technical skills of experts and the technological elements needed for them to carry out their work are necessary.

Therefore, as you can see, all the barriers are interrelated and stem from authorities, who are the ones that must seriously consider this economic model that only brings about benefits. To do this, they will have to make progress on effective policies, public awareness and investment that will make a brighter future possible.