A plastic bottle recycling center in China. Photo: AFP

Debate and action on climate change are heating up worldwide. From the implementation of the Paris Agreement by various countries to the proliferation of electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy, countries and consumers are getting serious about climate action.

As we chart new paths to solving the problem of climate change, “circular economy” models are getting serious interest from policymakers and urban planners. While it might not be a new idea, a circular economic model holds great potential as a major tool to curb climate challenges.

A circular economy differs dramatically from a linear economy, which is most common around the developed world. A linear economy is where, for example, minerals and other raw materials are extracted from the ground, a product is made from them, and when the product becomes obsolete or unusable, or if the consumer just gets bored with it, it is tossed into a trash can and taken to a landfill. 

A circular economy is different. The minerals and other raw materials are extracted from the ground, then a product is made from them. The product is not tossed out as with the linear economy, but is reused, repaired, refurbished and, if these are not done, then the materials used to make the product are recycled toward a new production cycle.

The objectives are to keep using what was previously considered waste as an input to production and to keep using the original product until its potential use is truly exhausted via refurbishing, reusing, and repairing. 

When it comes to climate change and the environment, the benefits of a circular economic model are clear.  

Consider the facts: Plastic pollution is ruining the oceans and lands, and air pollution kills millions of people a year. We waste 30-40% of our food in a world with vast numbers of people on the edge of starvation. There is food insecurity even in the richest countries. We waste and reject about 60-70% of the energy we put into our systems. We waste massive amounts of water. We waste gigantic amounts of minerals and metals.

There is an estimated US$57 billion worth of recoverable e-waste in landfills across the world. We are ruining soils for growing food and other crops worldwide. And these are just the start of the massive waste we create and do not use for good productive purposes. We waste in a world that is often defined by having many shortages. And then we waste the waste.

An obvious solution to the massive waste and the failure to use the waste is the further development of circular economies.

This may not be easy to propose to people who want only new clothes and would not feel comfortable with old, used clothes no matter how professionally cleaned they were. Fashion is an astonishingly wasteful industry that has “seasons” of obsolescence. Many would rather have the newest iPhone rather than keep the old one for a long time. Importantly, planned obsolescence is an anathema for circular economies.

And yet we are accustomed to reusing and recycling in many aspects of our lives. We go to hotels where the rooms have been used by someone else. We rent cars used by others. We use the utensils in restaurants that have been used by many people before. Many of us buy homes used by others – and then repair and refurbish them. The reuse, repair, and refurbish economy is hardly strange. People just do not think of it that way. 

A circular economy is a lot more than just reusing, repairing, recycling, and refurbishing products. It is a lot more than just reducing our resource uses. Each of these is an integral part of a circular economy. All need to happen to have a truly circular economy. They need to link with one another.

A circular economy is a system within systems nested in systems and then linked to other systems and a recurring circle of resources and products. The circles need to be closed. 

The development of a circular economy focused on carbon is a critical example of what could be accomplished with the greater integration of circular economies worldwide. Saudi Arabia, especially the world’s largest oil company Aramco and the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), are proponents of circular carbon economies. The Saudi Green Initiative supports circular carbon economies.

A way for the major oil and gas producers and exporters to help themselves survive longer in the coming energy transitions is to focus on circular carbon economies. They can strategize to reduce, recycle, and reuse carbon dioxide. Carbon is not the enemy, but allowing it to flow unabated into the atmosphere is. We are missing a major opportunity to use reclaimed CO2 in building material, cleaning fluids, fuels, and much more after it is captured, sequestered, and processed.

Water is another important issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. One way of increasing the supply of water is by recycling wastewater – even sewage water. Food waste is quite large in the Arab Gulf region. Much of that is due to overconsumption, which is against the ethos of circular economics. Some of the wasted food could be reused to feed animals or as compost. There are many uses of wasted food. So why waste the waste?

If the world developed full and functioning circular economies, it could significantly reduce resource use. It could put waste to use. It could extend product use and product cycles much longer. It could link waste cycles with product cycles.

It could be more like nature, which wastes nothing. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center, and a senior research associate at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.