World’s transition to circularity on the ‘net-zero path’

Humanity has always acted in harmony with its environment. Humans have utilized the resources offered by nature within its possibilities and capabilities and have become an element of natural balance. However, especially in the process that started with mechanization, the facilitation of production, changes in human behavior, and more comfortable and fast lifestyles have increased consumption, which has opened the door to the use of natural resources without hesitation.

As a matter of fact, in the report themed “Making Peace with Nature” published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2021, it is stated that the use of resources has reached 90 billion tons on an annual basis with a threefold increase in the processing and use of natural resources in the last 50 years alone, while food production followed a similar course as well, increasing three times in the last half-century.

Intensive resource use has exceeded the self-renewal capacity of the planet, which has led to the deterioration of the harmony between the main systems of our world that act almost like living organisms, which are: the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere and the lithosphere. Fossil resources used especially in areas such as heating, shelter, lighting and transportation have increased the pollution load in the atmosphere and caused major environmental problems such as climate change, air pollution and water stress, which greatly disrupt the ecological balance.

This situation is confirmed by the world limit day data calculated regularly every year by the Global Footprint Network. World Overshoot Day is essentially an indicator that represents the time when the ecological resources and services demanded by humanity in the current year reach the capacity offered by the planet. According to the results of this parameter, which has been measured in the last 50 years, the limit-exceeding days are listed as Oct. 11 in 1990, Sept. 23 in 2000, Aug. 21 in 2010, Aug. 22 in 2020, July 29 in 2021, July 29 in 2021 and finally July 28 in 2022. In other words, humanity consumed the ecological resources and services offered by our world for 2022 at the end of approximately seven months. In fact, for the remaining five months, it has actually started to use the resources needed for next year.

Another study revealing the destruction on the blue planet was conducted in 2009 by the Sweden-based Stockholm Resilience Centre. According to the study, it has been determined that there are limiting factors in nine areas of vital importance for the world to be a healthy and safe living space. Among these, it has been stated that many limits have already been exceeded, such as nitrogen/phosphorus flow, biodiversity loss, climate change, increase in atmospheric aerosol load, stratospheric ozone depletion, freshwater use and ocean acidification.

We produce waste

In order to make life easier, humanity has built many vehicles, roads, buildings, factories, bridges, dams, ships, planes and many more structures from past to present. It achieves these by utilizing the resources offered by the world. However, all these structures have durability and an efficient use period. None of them have an indefinite lifespan. With plastic-derived bags used for a few minutes or soft drink bottles used for a few days, as well as buildings with a lifespan of several centuries, ultimately, all manufactured things have the potential to become waste. In other words, almost every item and every product produced today is also eventually going to be waste.

Renewable energy production equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines, which we see as a great hope of salvation today, will turn into waste by completing their useful life in a quarter of a century.

According to the latest report (“What a Waste 2”) published by the World Bank in 2018, 2.01 billion tons of waste were generated on a global basis. This value roughly represents a size that can fill 800,000 Olympic pools. Only about 20% of the generated waste is reintroduced into the value chain, while a large amount of more than 70% is buried without being utilized.

When the calculation is made on the basis of the American Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Volume-to-Weight Conversion Coefficients in Solid Waste” guide, an area of at least twice the size of Tuvalu Island is needed each year for waste that is sacrificed and buried in open or regular areas. However, our world is already handing over an area the size of two islands, such as Tuvalu Island, which itself is in danger as a result of the global problem, climate change and seawater rise, to waste every year.

However, millions of tons of waste, from plastics to electronic waste, are sent to countries with inadequate infrastructure every year. Nevertheless, as long as it is not utilized, the displacement of the waste does not offer a solution.

If the consumption ratio continues to be this high, it is expected that 3.4 billion tons of solid waste will be generated by 2050, an increase of 70% from today’s value. On the other hand, the world population, which is currently 7.8 billion, is expected to increase by 35% to 10 billion in the same period. This figure demonstrates that individual consumption will experience a more than twofold increase.

Waste is one of the factors that trigger consumption. When evaluated only on the basis of food, one-third of the food produced in the world is lost, according to the evaluations of the U.N. Agriculture and Food Organization. Moreover, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), the size of this wasted portion is large enough to feed the starving population of the world four times. There is a similar situation in other product groups. There are millions of pieces of equipment, such as earphones and chargers that can be repaired, as well as tons of textile products that can still be worn but are thrown away due to simple issues. It is possible to tackle mobile devices, vehicles and other accessories in this context that are frequently renewed with the charm of the new model, although they still meet the need.

However, these tendencies that make life easier and increase living standards and comfort, on the other hand, shake the magnificent balance of the world, and in return, they cause the greatest harm to humanity. Therefore, it is necessary to experience a transformation and development that includes reducing individual consumption and changing some habits.

We destroy while producing

Nowadays, it is seen that a planned obsolescence method is adopted in almost all product groups. The most obvious examples can be presented as the emergence of some issues after the warranty period of electronic devices expires and the need for renewal in areas such as textiles due to wear and tear in a short time.

Brands make new collections every year while introducing new models by adding a few new features to the existing ones. However, we experience that the models produced in general have a very short lifespan, and from this point of view, we face what is known as planned obsolescence. Of course, new designs and new productions should be made. However, preferring the modular ones and enriching the designs in this respect will also be beneficial in terms of resource efficiency. Likewise, the production of products and product accessories in a repairable way is among the needs of today.

All these elements are undoubtedly the natural results of the “buy-use-dispose culture” oriented development and growth method. This situation, on the one hand, causes the destruction of ecosystems that host countless species and, on the other hand, exacerbates problems such as extreme weather events, heat and cold air waves, droughts, fires and floods, which continue to steadily increase in terms of impact and number.

According to the report titled “Deaths and Economic Losses Caused by Weather, Climate and Water Excesses” published by the World Meteorological Organization in 2021, the number of disasters has doubled in the last 50 years, and as a result of these disasters, 115 people lost their lives every day and thousands of them struggled against poverty. It is stated that there is an economic loss of $202 million on a daily basis due to the effects of disasters.

Linear to circular

Development policies carried out with the aim of increasing the welfare level have been based on a linear economy model called the “buy-use-dispose” culture in the past. On the other hand, in the same period, environmental investments were thought to be a barrier to growth in general terms. However, a book titled “Limits to Growth” published in 1972 pointed out that there would be major problems in the not-too-distant future if our resources were limited and consumption was high, which enabled voices to be heard for the ecological balance in the world public opinion.

For this reason, it has become inevitable in today’s world to separate and reuse the used raw materials from the waste generated throughout the production chain, to encourage resource efficiency as a result of reducing water and energy use, and to develop innovative and acceptable technologies, processes and services for this purpose.

The shift from the linear model based on the perception of “buy-use-dispose,” which is the main cause of almost all kinds of ecological deterioration, such as the climate crisis and other forms of environmental degradation, to the circuit of waste, such as “buy as you need, use, utilize, repair, renew and recycle” is necessary. At this point, this cyclical economy model, inspired by nature, constitutes a good example in which the basic critical substances are kept in a continuous cycle while other elements are naturally biotransformed, and there is almost no loss at the end.

Nature-inspired approach

A circular economy, rather than an understanding based on the unconscious use and consumption of natural resources in the linear economy in the past, aims to protect the product, material and resource values as much as possible and to extend the life of existing materials and products as much as possible.

As in the water or carbon cycle, no waste is generated in nature itself. On the contrary, the output that is not used by a living organism or considered waste is used to meet the basic needs of another living being. Similarly, the circular economy approach is an approach inspired by nature with this aspect, which encourages the use of what is needed or what has been produced more effectively and efficiently instead of producing more.

Of course, the circular economy model should not only be described as recycling. It is an approach that focuses on clean energy, reusability, repairability and durability. Therefore, it maximizes resource utilization by including processes such as sharing, renting, reusing, repairing and recycling products. In today’s terms, a circular economy can be defined as a zero waste-based approach that does not create waste. In other words, it can be expressed as a new approach in which economic growth is separated from resource use.

In an economy with a circular approach, instead of being stored or buried in the ground, waste is utilized in various ways and becomes a kind of raw material. Because as Frederick A. Talbot stated in his book “Waste” 100 years ago”: “Waste is just a raw material left in the wrong place.”

In this way, the destruction caused by mining activities is reduced by substituting waste instead of natural resources. Similarly, multi-faceted environmental and economic benefits are obtained by minimizing waste management costs by using waste as a raw material and energy source instead of being disposed of by storage.

Circular economy practices also appear with significant benefits on the basis of employment and economic gain. According to a study called “Talents for a Greener Future” conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019, it is predicted that there will be around 7 million to 8 million net employment increases on a global scale by 2030, in case of transition to the circular economy. Within the framework of economic gains, it is estimated that the transition from the linear structure to a cyclical system carries an economic growth potential of $4.5 trillion on a global basis until 2030.

Despite all these positive aspects, the distance covered in the context of cyclicity on a global scale does not seem sufficient. According to the “Circularity Gap” reports prepared on a global scale periodically since 2017, the cyclicality rate of our world is only 8.6%. In the 2022 report, it was emphasized that raw material extraction continues to show an exponential increase and that the raw material extraction, which has increased by four times in the last 50 years, will reach 170 billion tons in the middle of the century, and the importance of circular economy implementation tools has been emphasized in this regard. The report also shares the finding that the target of 17% circularity by 2030 for sectors with high change potential seems possible as well.

Situation in Türkiye

Today, environmental concerns lead consumers to act more consciously. It is a period in which the Blue Flag beaches and air quality indexes are questioned within the scope of tourism activities, and whether the products used are environmentally friendly or whether they are made of recycled materials come to the fore. Based on this fact, it is seen that big manufacturers emphasize environmental issues, concepts such as carbon footprint, water footprint and environmental labels in their advertisements. In other words, both producers and consumers are in the process of change.

The door to a change and transformation in this direction was opened in Türkiye by becoming a party to the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the preindustrial period. Subsequently, in the 76th U.N. General Assembly address, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared the carbon neutral target for 2053 to the world public opinion, and within this framework, the “green development move” was announced.

The zero waste movement has already been implemented under the auspices of first lady Emine Erdoğan. It is our worldwide example project to prevent waste that includes the use of waste as alternative raw materials in the industry, the deposit-return system for beverage packaging and the national environmental label application that reduces the environmental footprint of products and services. Clean production activities and industrial symbiosis-like activities in the industry carried out within the framework of the principle of resource efficiency are among the good circular economy practices as well.

In addition, steps such as bicycle transportation, insulation mobilization in buildings and energy identity certificate applications, which are also applied in other thematic areas, especially resource and energy efficiency, and the obligation to harvest rainwater for the structures built on a plot of more than 2,000 square meters, shows that the circular economy is not only used in one area such as waste but can be used widely in other areas as well.

Towards net zero

The climate crisis that the world is in, the pandemic, and the energy and food crises due to tensions between countries have shown once again how vital the balance between nature and people is. It has become inevitable for countries to be self-sufficient within their own means and to adopt new cyclical development strategies by reducing the pressure on natural resources.

To prevent or mitigate the effects of the current climate crisis, reducing greenhouse gases that have already reached record levels or removing greenhouse gases that have already accumulated in the atmosphere can be a kind of solution. However, the continuation of production without emitting greenhouse gases will mean that the pressure on resources will continue.

Just as the transition to electric mobility vehicles in road transportation, which is one of the important greenhouse gas sources, is a step that prevents emissions, it will not prevent the need for rare earth elements in addition to basic inputs such as metal, plastic and glass used in the construction of those vehicles. At this point, it will be essential to turn to an economic model that will ensure that such basic elements in nature are kept constantly in the production cycle.

In this respect, it is obvious that the nature-inspired circular economy principle will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the solution to the global climate crisis but also support the formation of sustainable production and consumption patterns by more effectively managing the resources that are threatened by depletion.

*Deputy Minister of the Republic of Türkiye’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy

**Environment and Urban Planning Specialist

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