Climate psychologist Per Espen Stoknes on the circular economy.

We extract incredible amounts of materials from nature each year to serve our needs and wants. Most of it ends up as waste after we use it once or is discarded without being used at all.

Research estimates that on average only 9 percent of resources are reused.

A circular economy can reduce both resource extraction and CO2 emissions. Increasing the reuse and recycling of just the four value chains for plastics, steel, aluminum, and concrete can close to halve emissions from these sectors by 2050.

Concrete gains

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on the planet. Since 2003, China has poured more cement every three years than the US managed in the entire twentieth century.

Continued urbanization in the coming decades will undoubtedly require much more. Reuse of concrete has a number of benefits. It can help keep construction costs down, cut transport needs, cut CO2 emissions and facilitate compliance with environmental laws.

Just outside Oslo, a property developer expects to save around $160 million in material costs by reusing concrete and other materials from the demolition of a large shopping mall for the construction of a new housing project.

This illustrates the essence of the circular material flow drivers: cutting waste, costs, and material extraction by reusing and upcycling materials in thoughtful ways.

From linear to circular

As the economy matures out of the linear growth model of the industrial age and we scale up improved recycling designs, huge deposits of pre-used materials become available for reuse. Currently, the stocks of material resources in buildings, cars, machines etc. are around ten times larger than annual extractions.

Conventional design thinking often assumes that achieving such radical resource productivity is too expensive. Yet a host of initiatives demonstrate that up to 90 percent energy and resources savings can be very profitable.

Already, washing machines can adjust the amount of water used according to the weight of laundry and how dirty it is, houses can adjust lighting to match daylight and residents’ comings and goings, and trucks can improve their loading and driving through cloud-based logistics.

By replacing stuff with information, a megatrend often referred to as digitalization, companies contribute to the dematerialization of the economy. That’s the key to making more value from products and services that consume ever fewer new materials.

Read more in Per Espen's new book Tomorrow's Economy.

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