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Circular economy: Driving sustainable economic development

The UN has estimated that the global population will near 11.3 billion by 2060, with Africa expected to experience just as much exponential growth (2.5 billion by 2050), which will represent about 26% of the world's total population.
Image source: Gallo/Getty

However, it also alludes to a very serious challenge that threatens the future resilience and sustainability of cities if we don’t change our attitudes to what we consider resources versus waste. According to the World Bank, in fact, in 2016 the world’s cities generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste which equated roughly to 0.74kg per person per day. This demonstrates a serious concern.

EU Circular Economy Package


Globally, however, there has been strong intervention to change both consumer attitudes as well as business practice when it comes to waste. On the 18th of April 2019, Europe officially adopted the Circular Economy Package, which imposes new ambitious recycling and waste recovery targets on all 28 member countries - the first time EU countries are required to follow a single and shared legal framework.

This Circular Economy Package looks at a number of areas to ensure there is strong reform that can be mapped across the globe – with the premise that it will become a fundamental ingredient for the implementation of a global policy in favour of the environment.

This framework mandates that by 2025, at least 55% of municipal waste will need to be recycled. The target will become 60% in 2030 and 65% in 2035. For packaging material, the target is a 65% recycling rate by 2025 and 70% by 2030. Similarly, individual targets have been set for specific packaging materials, such as paper and cardboard, plastic, glass, metal and wood.

Furthermore, another step in this framework is the uniformisation of the method for calculating performance, which allows for more coherent results where, for example, disposal in landfills will be limited to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste by 2035 and needs to be seen as the last resort.

Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste

So what about Africa – are we aligned, and why should we care?


The circular economy is a relatively new concept, however, in the African context it offers significant opportunities to truly deliver on more inclusive economic growth, which includes job opportunities and positive environmental practices that are direly needed for sustainable growth.

As a reformative system, the circular economy is a model that aims to strip out all unnecessary waste materials, energy losses and related carbon emissions across supply chains and, through integration and innovation, promotes closing these gaps to allow materials, energy and resources to be ‘fed’ back into the cycle. The consensus is that a more sustainable eco-cycle can be achieved through long-term design and planning, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling.

While adoption of this thinking is still in its infancy in Africa, there are success stories that can be seen in pockets where, through innovation, we are also seeing new business streams and even new industries come to the fore supporting this type of thinking.

For example, the drive to divert waste from landfill has directly resulted in waste disposers or management companies merging into reprocessing industries, with significant focus being placed on reuse, recycle, repurpose. This is causing manufacturers to rethink how they design their products as well as the type of resources they use to make their goods and products of today, that will (re)become raw materials of tomorrow.

The circular economy: building an economy on the template of nature

The earth is a closed system. Apart from the energy we receive from sunlight, everything produced and consumed on earth is based on its own resources. It is also a special planet...

By Sylvie Geisendorf and Paul Wolf 29 Apr 2019


Safe destruction facilities


Additionally, in cases where recycling and reusing is not possible, we are seeing growth in safe destruction facilities as well as growth in the waste-to-energy space. In fact, waste-to-energy plants offer a unique opportunity to tackle two critical challenges to lasting, sustainable development across Africa; power generation, and sustainably managing waste by reducing reliance on landfills.

Across industries, we are seeing a more concerted effort to find solutions that make active use of waste – building on the philosophy of reuse wherever possible. However, we need to instil a complete culture change and shift markets towards ‘giving back to the system’ in how we approach and treat resources versus waste so as to avoid potential crises and ensure we build towards a resilient and sustainable future in Africa.

So, while there is no specific circular economy-related framework on the African continent, we are steering in the right direction. All that is needed now is a mandate that all businesses follow suit – that it is not merely a means to monopolise businesses but rather that it becomes a public and private sector priority.
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About the author

Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste
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