Going Circular to Protect the Climate and Nature

Circular Economies can protect the climate and nature, create jobs and enhance prosperity

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a new form of personal journalism that looks at what we Need-to-Know at this time of pandemic, existential crisis of climate change and unravelling of nature’s life supports. Learn more.

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A Circular Economy is essential to keep global temperature rise below 2C AND to halt and reverse the dangerous decline of nature by reducing pressure on natural resources. Here’s what you need-to-know.

Need-to-Know 1: If everyone lived like a Canadian or an American we’d need five planet Earths

Even the global average means we need 1.7 planets to keep going as we are.

What exactly does this mean?

Need-to-Know 2: Humanity is now consuming over 100 billion tons of materials a year.

Take a second to consider that number:

If you poured one billion (1,000,000,000) table-tennis balls into a big pit, it would have to be 40 meters deep and 40 metres per side. 

And all those tiny, featherweight table-tennis balls would weigh 2.7 million kilograms.

Imagine filling 100 of these super-sized ball pits every year.

100 billion tons is an astounding number. It is difficult to imagine that each person on the planet consumes more than 12 tons of material a year on average or that a Canadian consumes 35 tons a year

Need-to-Know 3: The extraction, manufacture, use and disposal of this material accounts for 70% of global carbon emissions.

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I was very surprised by this number but it makes sense since lots of our energy is used to make stuff, grow food and build cities. 

Those need-to-knows are from theCircularity Gap Report 2021 which has been endorsed by leading sustainability experts. I recommend checking it out. Here’s another one:

Need-to-Know 4: Only 8.6% of the +100 billion tons is circular. Yes, only 8 or 9 million tons is cycled back into the economy. 

Effectively 90 odd billion tons is being extracted, consumed and thrown away every year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an environmentalist to know this can’t continue. 

Previous issues of Need to Know looked at how we ended up being so wasteful and what to do:

Advertising drives dangerously dysfunctional consumer society

Plastic Pollution and the Five Principles of Zero-waste.


The Gap report makes it clear we cannot keep global warming below 2C without reducing consumption. 

The current pledges bring us over 15% of the way; the circular economy delivers the other 85%.… The good news is that we only need to close the Gap by a further 8.4%—or roughly double the current global figure of 8.6%—to get there. 

A circular economy can satisfy societal needs and wants by doing more with less.

What exactly is a Circular Economy?

In nature cycles, such as of water and nutrients, are everywhere. What is discarded become resources for others. Here’s how one of the first proponents of a circular economy, Walter Stahel, director of the Product-Life Institute in Geneva, Switzerland explains it:

A ‘circular economy’ would turn goods that are at the end of their service life into resources for others, closing loops in industrial ecosystems and minimizing waste. The reprocessing of goods and materials generates jobs and saves energy while reducing resource consumption and waste

Cleaning a glass bottle and using it again is faster and cheaper than recycling the glass or making a new bottle from minerals. 

Our current way of thinking, and way we’ve structured our economy, is linear — it’s about making ever more stuff. A circular economy is all about sufficiency:

  • Reuse what you can

  • Recycle what cannot be reused

  • Repair what is broken

  • Remanufacture what cannot be repaired. 

Ownership gives way to stewardship; consumers become users and creators. The remanufacturing and repair of old goods, buildings and infrastructure creates skilled jobs in local workshops. Many goods are sold as services through rent, lease and share business models.

Does this sound like a green pipe dream? It did to me until I learned Europe is already on the path to creating the first circular economy

The European Commission created a circular economy action plan in 2020 that includes a mandate a universal charger for mobile phones and a new “right to repair” for electronic devices by the end of 2021. Among it’s ambitious goals for 2030:

  • 75% of all packaging must be reusable or recyclable

  • Only reusable or recyclable plastic in products 

  • Slashing waste sent to landfill by 80 to 90% 

  • Ban on a wide range of single-use plastic products

To make this happen Europe is setting up a wide range of regulations among them eco-design standards for new products and packaging along with eco-labelling and digital passports to document a product’s sustainability along its entire supply chain.

European countries and companies are already moving in this direction:

  • The City of Amsterdam is working to become the first Circular City. Buildings are being built from reclaimed materials and constructed so their components can be reused. This has the potential to create a value of $100 million per year within the construction sector.

  • The district of Schoonschip in Amsterdam is already a sustainable, circular community.

  • Since 2007 Michelin sells tires ‘by the mile’ to operators of vehicle fleets. It repairs and regroove tires at clients’ premises giving the company an incentive to develop longer-lasting products.

  • Philips Lighting provides lighting as a service not a product.

  • Renault is building Europe’s first circular economy factory for vehicles by reconditioning vehicles with less carbon-intensive materials using 3D-printing. Used batteries will get a second life, while end of life vehicles will be disassembled for parts or recycling.

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Not only is a transition to circular economy inevitable, it brings many benefits. Studies show this could boost Europe’s GDP a trillion dollars by 2030. Much of this comes from a tremendous savings in energy and material costs as well as the creation of 700,000 new jobs. And the climate bonus will be a big cut in carbon emissions. 

Protect the climate and nature, reduce pollution, create more jobs and enhance prosperity. What’s not to like? Every country, every community needs to get moving and create a circular economy. 

Until next time, stay safe and think circular. 


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