Modernity has become synonymous with wastefulness. We take, make, and dispose of the things we buy. This linear system operates so that resources flow in one direction. However, a promising alternative exists—a brave new world of the circular economy, which promotes the reuse of materials and offers numerous benefits for both the planet and society.
But what exactly is a circular economy, and how does it differ from our current economic model? Can a transition to a circular economy effectively balance positive economic outcomes with the imperative of protecting our planet? And what practical steps would be involved in making this shift?
To delve into these questions, Ngā Ara Whetū directors Maria Armoudian and Saeid Baroutian (who is also the director of CIRCUIT) spoke with Rob Langford, CEO of The Packaging Forum, and Larisa Thathiah, the head of sustainability at Te Whatu Ora Waitematā. Together, they aim to demystify the concept of the circular economy and explore its potential implications. To listen to the interview in full, click here.
Maria: We should start with the basics. We’re talking about this different kind of economy. What is wrong with the economy we have now? Saeid, can you give us an idea of the problem we’re trying to address?
Saeid: Sure — The problem is we can’t carry on with business as usual, with a linear economy. And what is a linear economy? Linear economies take, make, and dispose of resources. That means extracting resources and making products, using them, and, finally, disposing of them is a very linear economic system. The problem is that this system is wasteful and not environmentally friendly. We generate tonnes of waste because of this economy. And we have lots of other issues, resource limitation. There is a huge demand for new materials because the middle class is growing fast. And I don’t know if it is our nature to consume and buy products, but we want to purchase, buy, and consume. So that means this current system cannot satisfy the enormous demand for resources and products.
Larisa: It also leads to other environmental challenges. The effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and things like that because we are essentially just producing more and more waste that’s ending up in landfills and creating emissions. And that’s leaving legacies of areas of land covered with waste and buried for centuries, you know, so we have to start looking at approaching this concept a little bit differently.
Rob: I think if we talk about the bottom end of the output of our linear economy. It is about how much material ends up in our landfills. New Zealand is one of the world’s worst countries in the OECD for waste to landfill. That should raise some concerns; we are fully engaged in that take-make-throw-away economy, and that thinking is quite recent.
If you go back to our parents and their parents’ generations, it was all about reuse, making your own everything. And but as consumers become wealthier and things have become more available, we’ve then started taking this approach to goods where we want the next new thing, we want the next fresh car. And that’s the whole world.
The generations now, and even our generations, are asking the question: Is this right? For The Packaging Forum, our focus is end-of-life solutions. How do we stop putting materials into landfill? It might sound very low-end, and it is a start, but we shouldn’t ignore that we must fix what we’re doing today. And then, we can progress to more circular economies. But if we don’t start with low-hanging fruit, then we’re missing the first step.
Maria: Do we have an idea of the scope of the problem? How bad is it?
Saeid: It’s very bad. As Rob mentioned, New Zealand is one of the worst OECD countries in terms of being wasteful. But there’s another aspect of the linear economy: it creates social inequality. It promotes that culture of “throw-away” and prioritising the interest of a few at the cost of many. And the result is that industry, producers, and manufacturers benefit from this linear economy. And from that throw-away economy, the consumers, the ordinary people, and the next generations will end up with environmental disasters from the climate crisis.
Maria: How much of the problem can we solve with a circular economy versus a linear economy?
Rob: First we’ve got to look at what is the circular economy. People talk about it being “the new wave”, you know, like it will fix everything. This has been around since the 1990s. This is not new stuff. And some countries have already started going down looking at how they deal with their waste. It’s not like we have to start with something new. It’s something that we need to start embracing as a society.
Maria: We’ve started discussing what’s wrong with the linear economy. How does circular economy differ?
Rob: It’s about how we keep materials products in use for a longer period, rather than just a two-year lifetime, where it can’t be repaired. It’s about starting to challenge that thinking and saying, How is it made? Is it fit for purpose? Is it a quality that can be kept in circulation for a longer period of time? Can it be repaired rather than disposed of? And then, even more importantly, at its disposal stage, can you recover those materials and use them again? That’s the principle of the circular economy.
Larisa: I would add to what Robert said is it is also rethinking how we do things. Keeping things in a circular in that cycle for much longer and extracting the highest possible value is what a fundamental circular economy is about, but it is also moderated—and we have to redesign products and change how we can do things. On top of that, if you look at the waste hierarchy, which supports some of the circular economy principles, the elimination of waste is sitting right at the top. And then it’s also got the regeneration aspects of sustainable materials, renewable energy, and all these other aspects come into it. But in the fundamental sense, as Rob mentioned, it’s been around for a long time. But if we have to look at it in its most simplistic form, it is trying to emulate nature. That’s my thoughts on it. Because in nature, we have systems that regenerate themselves and move in a cycle continuously. And this is what circular economy is trying to take a lesson from nature and see how we can change how we’re doing things.
If you were looking at it in terms of packaging and recovering, which is the area I specialise in, I would head to countries like Belgium, which have a very structured system for recovering material. And they operate a system called extended producer responsibility, which in straightforward terms, is the ownership of the packaging of the goods. Once you’ve got your mail and opened it up and looked at your iPhone, all that packaging still, they still have the responsibility to recover that and reuse that material. It’s no longer just about the phone. It’s about taking ownership of the packaging and making sure there is a system in place so that it’s recovered and recycled. Belgium stands out; they’ve got a model that does that they do it across all packaging. And it works very effectively. And it returns the responsibility to the people who put it on the market. And then it also gives the consumer choice. If you put the responsibility equally with all the parties, and you put the systems in place to do it, then you can achieve great things without significant cost being born to the consumer.
Packaging is a really big thing. What are some other examples that we can think about?
Whiteware could be a great example of a new model for a circular economy. Instead of buying or purchasing equipment, we could subscribe. One example is the dishwasher. They aren’t designed to last long. So maybe after a few years of using dishwashers, we need to get rid of them. A new service or new model could be to subscribe for a dishwasher. A company provide you with a high-quality and energy-efficient dishwasher. And all the electricity, water, and dishwasher powders are included in the subscription. So that means the manufacturer is responsible for making more profit; they will try to make more energy-efficient, clean and repairable products. This is another good example of circular economy strategies or business models.
What do you think Larisa?
I agree with both Rob and Dr Saeid; all these things are very important. And it is about behavioural change. And it’s that’s the fundamental piece of it, changing the consumption patterns, and then that will be on the top of the list.
So there needs to be some kind of a system in place. And how do we do that?
Most of us, you know, shop, we get the basics, the bread, the milk, et cetera? And I’ll put it to you when you finish with your loaf of bread and the plastic bags left. Where do you put it? Well, we know from all our investigations that people still choose to put soft plastics in their recycling, believing it is getting recycled. And the truth is, sadly, it’s not a product that is economically viable at the end of its life. And therefore, it’s better put through the right system. If you can put in the right systems, we can resolve your problem. But the reality is, if you buy the bread every day, you’re getting a lot of soft plastics. And if you’re not putting it in the right place, you’re just contributing to the issue.
But we do need to talk about human behaviour around this. New Zealand has one very old, refillable beer model here in New Zealand. But we talk about refillable models; we want one to do the right thing for the economy. But the reality is that only a very small part of our whole network uses them. The model is there, it’s available, but it doesn’t deliver exactly what you want.
But if that’s the most important thing for you, there is a model there; challenge the producer of that model to give you what you want rather than say now, just take that off-the-shelf brand because I like the brand. So again, it’s there’s a two-sided equation to this; there’s the consumer’s need to understand and use the right systems. And there’s all about this and know about the systems, and they will communicate, and you can go on to any Council website, they’ll tell you where to put everything you can go to, you know, organisations like ourselves, you can go to the supermarket, so they all have it on their website. It’s an interesting survey to do. It’s not like it’s unavailable; people aren’t choosing the effort.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For the full-length podcast, click here.