Turning ‘Waste’ from a Problem into a Solution for a Circular Economy

  • 2019/12/27     Dresden, Germany

    By Jinkyung Oh

    What do we see in the waste we produce in our day-to-day? We call it ‘waste’ based on the conventional conception of an economy that is linear, but in a circular economy, ‘waste’ can instead be considered as resources. We utilise resources to produce what we want by ‘taking’, ‘making’, ‘using’, and ‘waste’ is the end result in the linear economy, however, the circular economy can help close the loop by turning the overwhelmingly increasing waste on the planet into a solution for our resource needs.

    At Nexus Seminar No. 40 held on 19 November 2019, Prof. Hiroshan Hettiarachchi, who heads the Waste Management team at UNU-FLORES, shared a wide range of cases related to waste management and circular economy. The main question was: how can we turn waste into a solution for a circular economy? His observations included points that we tend to overlook regarding waste and how we can make circular economy as a transition to sustainability to answer the question.

    Circular economy is not a fancy concept, but one that already exists as a survival tactic. Prof. Hettiarachchi injected some fun by making references to a sci-fi movie in which the main character, who happened to be an astronaut stranded on an empty planet, has had to practise circular economy to overcome resource limitations. In reality, the NEWater project in Singapore, for example, started as early as in 1998, where the resource-strapped nation has had to turn to wastewater treatment to meet their industry and sanitation needs. Today, the quality of the reclaimed water exceeds the requirements set by the World Health Organization. Another case presented was from Brazil where waste scavengers on a dumpsite have been practising circular economy by turning waste into a source of income by recycling. Although the contexts may vary from place to place, people have been using waste for survival when available resources are limited.

    How far are we in achieving a circular economy today? Our current focus is mainly on the ‘waste’, but there are problems in the production and consumption parts of the cycle. Currently, there is a 91% gap in achieving circularity – materials are still leaking from the cycle, leaving as waste. Particularly in agriculture, there are still gaps in producing in a sustainable manner; about 30–40% of the food we produce becomes waste each year on a global scale. Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Responsible production and consumption) can pave the way to minimising current gaps to reach full circle.

    To fill the gaps, Prof. Hettiarachchi pointed out the role of policies. Initiatives advocating for change in our lifestyles through innovative policies have already been introduced in many countries already. In Rwanda, there is a ban on plastic bags, and policies have been passed to simplify wedding receptions in Pakistan to deal with waste. Other innovative ideas such as the selling of services instead of products can also be seen as efforts to move towards a circular economy.

    “We can make the cycle work, but it requires us to make our production and consumption sustainable through innovation and policy change.”
    – Prof. Hiroshan Hettiarachchi

    While policies can facilitate change, one challenge that remains is to change the way people think about waste. In his elaboration on cases, Prof. Hettiarachchi pointed out the contradictions in our production and consumption behaviours. For example, we set the saving of water as a priority but the amount of food wasted is growing. Prof. Hettiarachchi emphasised that perception matters and it is time to change the way we think.

    Following the engaging presentation, seminar participants took part in a lively discussion about the observations presented. It was agreed that the circular economy is a pathway to reach sustainable development in resource use.