09 June 2014

Things come full circle

The summer season of music festivals is fast approaching and will see a seasonal resurgence in one aspect of the circular economy that many of us are already familiar with: bottle and can collecting. The people involved in this phenomenon are much less interested in the artists on stage and much more interested in recycling the bottles and cans they pick up and collecting the deposits on them.

The idea behind the circular economy is to eliminate waste by collecting, recycling, and reusing things, whether by returning them to the natural cycle, recycling them as raw materials, or reusing them in another way.

The World Economic Forum recently set up Project MainStream to promote the circular economy through a cross-sector collaborative effort to identify areas that can facilitate this type of economy, from pure material flows and policy enablement to technology.

Up until now, recycling and the reuse of materials have largely depended on value-based choices taken by individual people or companies that have taken a lead in the field because of the new business opportunities they have seen here. Puma and Nike, for example, have integrated ‘closed loop’ material recycling into their product design process.

All these efforts are being driven by a concern about the world’s resources and how long they can last in the face of the rising demand for products resulting from growing population levels and the spread of the middle class. It has been estimated that the world could see 3 billion new middle-class consumers by 2030.

Materials that could be recycled and reused are continuing to make their way to landfills. One consequence of this has been the rise of urban mining, an activity dedicated to recovering and reusing these materials or returning them to the raw material flow. The Guardian recently reported that the US Environmental Protection Agency has calculated that 1 million discarded mobile phones could generate 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium, and more than 20,000 pounds of copper. Despite this, only 10% of the mobile phones disposed off every year end up being recycled.

The ultimate aim is to eliminate landfills completely at some stage. But this won’t happen at the drop of a hat. New technology will be needed. Consumer attitudes and consumer behavior will also have to change. And people will need to become more recycling-aware.

The growing pace of urbanization will make recycling and the collection of materials that would otherwise end up in landfills easier, thanks to the large volumes of these materials that are generated when people live close to each other. Urban mining, for example, can foster new types of business based around collecting raw materials, which in turn can generate new businesses based on using these materials. Those people we see collecting bottles and cans this summer could well presage the emergence of an activity that could become part of the mainstream economy in the not-too-distant future – and see things really come full circle.

Sirpa Juutinen
partner, Yritysvastuupalvelut,
Pwc