Closing the loop on waste

Transitioning from linear to circular models of production and consumption remains a significant challenge. How can we transform deeply ingrained practices, attitudes, and incentives across both supply and demand chains to facilitate this shift?

EnvironmentGlobal

Clearing discarded rubbish from creeks in Manila, Philippines. ©ADB

Our planet is literally drowning in the amount of waste we are generating. With over eight billion humans on the planet and counting, we as consumers and producers make millions if not billions of choices. These choices produce over 2.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually (according to the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024).

Waste is an indicator of how well we are doing not just in terms of general economic efficiency but also in terms of our impact on the Earth. Unfortunately, our supply (production) and demand (consumption) practices are highly inefficient. The waste we generate could rise by more than 77% by the end of 2050. By the same year, we could also expect to find more plastic in the oceans than fish. These trends show an alarming crisis with clear negative impact on our own health, local ecosystems, and the wider Earth system. 

In 2015, with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community formally recognized the need for resource efficiency and to reduce our waste footprint by the year 2030. This was done through the inclusion of indicators explicitly related to waste management into three of the Global Goals:

  • SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities)
  • SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption)
  • SDG 14 (life below water)

But waste management is actually linked to all 17 SDGs, signaling an urgent need to move to an economic model that considers the entire lifecycle of a product, from design to end-of-life. 

But who is responsible and who can make the changes needed now?

A wasteful system

Our economic systems are not resource efficient and we are all responsible. On the production side, natural resource depletion is well documented, with trends showing that recycling can play a role, and that the annual consumption curve of virgin materials is also critical. 

Unfortunately, consumption is central to the GDP formula and our need for quarterly and annual economic growth. Final consumption expenditure is over 70% of annual GDP in some countries (Figure 1). Currently, we do not have data to measure if this is “green” (that is, consumption that safeguards the environment.)


Figure 1: Distribution of countries by final consumption expenditure (% of GDP

Source: author’s elaboration based on latest year of available data from World Bank (2022)


Our economies track consumer spending based on a “take-make-waste” linear model. Today’s consumer culture proliferates this model. Marketing strategies try to convince us that we need new products, often delivered to our homes, to be trendy, healthy, and (ultimately) “happy.” This fuels a never-ending resource consumption curve servicing economic data and GDP growth. In line with this, many producers have business models that depend on limited lifespans or “planned obsolescence.” Fast fashion, electronics, and single-use plastics are prime examples. 

However, as pollution increases, our distaste for consumption can also be limited. It is evident that there are confines to growth within the current linear model. In fact, today we have gone beyond the safe perimeters for six out of nine key Earth system processes, putting the Earth’s ability to support human life at risk.

To put the right solutions into action, we must first understand our current progress. 

But how can we measure whether our global value-chains, economies, and systems are approaching circularity? 

Measuring progress toward circularity

The indicators set out in the SDGs – such as municipal solid waste collections (SDG 11.6.1), food loss and waste indices (SDG 12.3.1), national recycling rate (SDG 12.5.1), or marine plastic density (SDG 14.1.1) – have the potential to show us if things are improving. However, data is limited, as demonstrated in Figure 2 for SDG indicator 12.5.1. 


Figure 2: data availability for SDG indicator 12.5.1


The estimates we do have show that only 62% of municipal solid waste is managed in controlled facilities across the globe (see the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024), and approximately 90% of waste in low-income countries is discarded in unregulated dumps.

Developed countries are generally leading when it comes to sustainable waste management practices. But if we look at data on waste exports, this may not fully be the case. For example, Ghana receives over 30 million second-hand garments every two weeks – to put this into perspective, the population of the entire country is just over 30 million. While the second-hand clothes trade is an important livelihood for many, up to 100 tonnes of textiles a day are classified as waste, most of which is openly burnt or dumped in rivers and the sea. 

Exporting waste to developing countries also means that the vulnerable groups, often women and children working informally, end up being exposed to toxic chemicals. There are an estimated 20 million people employed globally through the informal economy of waste pickers

A holistic approach: moving to a circular system

1. Choosing uncomfortable policies

Fully closing the loop in our economies means we must look at oftentimes uncomfortable policies like full-cost accounting and full-cost pricing, that account for all the negative externalities in our goods and services. The problem also lies in the way products are designed, manufactured, and packaged. 

2. The polluter pays

True circularity of goods and services relies on effective market-based instruments based on the cornerstone of environmental justice – the polluter pays principle. This goes hand in hand with preventive measures like designing out waste in the first place and product stewardship policies that ensure all stakeholders involved in a product are responsible for its proper management throughout the lifecycle. This includes the manufacturer and the consumer, but also governments to ensure recycling is possible and that value chains work to transform waste into resources at the scale we need. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes in developed countries have had successful outcomes:

  • shifting end-of-life costs from the public sector to producers and consumers
  • improving recycling behaviors
  • increasing material recovery rates – this is closing the loop in practice

Countries such as the Republic of Korea have 28 items under the EPR system (four packaging materials and 24 specific items under nine different product lines). However, many developing countries are just at the start of considering EPR and require investment to transform their waste management infrastructure and capacity. 

Nevertheless, as we learn of the true environmental cost of our production and consumption practices – such as the leakage of microplastics and nanoplastics into our bodies and the environment – it is clear that policies like EPR are not enough to clean up the scale of the pollution crisis. They are needed as part of a broader package of instruments.

3. Data and governance

We need more data on how circular our economies are, with global governance needed to measure the circularity of these economies – a circular economy index measuring each country.

The increased trade of goods is also contributing through the lack of standardization on the labeling of packaging materials, and uneven technological capabilities for recycling across countries. 

We do not have globally comparable data and our economies do not uniformly measure what products are considered sustainable or “green” consumption. In the last decade, World Trade Organization member countries have attempted negotiations to better classify what products are “green” – but these have not succeeded. 

4. Improving impacts 

We need global governance to truly improve the social and environmental impacts of consumption and production trends. Global governance and multilateral environmental agreements can make change happen, as they provide frameworks to address the challenges through a unified approach on circularity. 

The SDGs, the high seas treaty, and the ongoing negotiations for a global plastics treaty are all examples of progress. The annual observation of days such as the UN’s International Day of Zero Waste also raises awareness to share experiences. But we need to ensure future global agendas adopt a holistic approach and integrate the complex interaction between our production and consumption trends. These must also close the data gaps to better measure progress, as well as tackle the most harmful producer practices and consumer habits and social norms. 

Conclusion

If we ensure global agreement and action on the ground, we can close the loop and lead the market transformation pathways to preserve our Earth system for generations to come.


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