In today’s global economy, goods are produced cheaply, consumed quickly, and discarded even faster. But a short product life cycle risks exploiting natural resources and irreversibly polluting the environment. This so-called take-make-dispose or ‘linear’ economy model is simply not sustainable on a planet with scarce resources and limited regeneration capacities.
But there is an alternative.
By design, a circular economy is regenerative and restorative. It aims to keep materials and products at their highest value and use at all times and drastically reduces pressure on ecosystems.
Waste management, including the collection and treatment of waste, is central for increasing circularity in South Africa as well as reducing the negative impacts of landfills on the environment, human health, and greenhouse gas emissions. Today, more than 90% of all municipal waste ends up in South Africa’s landfills, with only 10% of it recycled.
Yet, the circular economy is so much more than just waste management. Businesses can grasp the economic opportunities presented by the circular economy. This is where products and their component parts have a longer life because their materials are reused, repurposed, or recycled once the initial object is no longer needed. Closing the material loop requires a rethinking in the way we design, produce, consume products, as well as how we reuse materials at the end of a product’s lifetime. This offers opportunities for the South African economy and calls for strategies that should focus on four priority sectors: food, construction, plastics, and textiles manufacturing given their significant environmental and socioeconomic impacts.
South Africa’s successful transition to a circular economy will require more than just a change in consumer and business behaviors and mindsets inspired by the idea of renewal and awareness that natural resources are not limitless. While many of us are trying to cut down our waste, but for large scale change to occur, businesses and governments need to be on board. While we also need to re-engineer the responsibilities that designers and manufacturers have to the products they make, and governments need to refine the policy settings to enable better participation in the circular economy.