1) The climate crisis: Not only is the ultimate goal of the circular economy to move to renewable energy – leading to lower carbon emissions – but the recycling and reuse of materials will make industry much less energy intensive than the current linear system.
2) The toxicity crisis: We inhale chemicals from manufactured goods all the time. We may not think about it but – given that we spend 90% of our time indoors – this is a major problem if not properly addressed. Plastics, paints, textiles and so on give off gases that contain toxins and dust particles, causing asthma as well as other diseases. As the world become more urban, we need to ensure that the materials that go inside buildings are made with human health and the environment in mind. The Cradle to Cradle approach identified by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and adopted by Desso, offers a framework for making sure all products are safe and designed to be recycled and reused.
3) Raw material scarcity crisis: We simply don’t have an endless supply of raw materials in the earth – copper, phosphates, zinc, oil and the like – with which to continue the economic growth rates of the past century. At present, about 80% of waste from consumer goods, whether packaging, clothes or shoes, ends up in incinerators, landfill and wastewater. Yet, there is commercial value to be gained from finding recycle-and-reuse business models, which could amount to US$ 700 billion in consumer goods material savings every year, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Transition to Circular Economy, Vol. II). Across all industries, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey have highlighted an annual trillion dollar opportunity if the circular model was widely adopted.
4) Energy crisis: Our reliance on fossil fuels is not only unsustainable in the long term, but also makes us vulnerable to economic shocks now. As the American author, consultant and economist Jeremy Rifkin put it in a recent interview, “When fuel costs rise, all the other prices across the supply chain go through the roof, because everything’s made out of fossil fuels: fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, construction materials, synthetic fibres, power, transport, heat and light.” Rifkin calls for a more stable energy system based on a new, technologically enabled power grid supplying renewable energy to homes, offices and plants. The circular economy, with its long-term focus on the use of renewable energy sources and its less energy intensive model provides a potential structure for this.