Charting the circular economy: Where are we heading?

As a student studying environmental management, I love to collect all the packages that have been used once to prevent them from going into trash bins. Yesterday, I brought some plastic packages to shop for vegetables, but the supermarket still asked me to pack everything with new single-use plastic packages just for the convenience of checkout. I couldn’t help but complain to the cashier, “what a waste!”
If we think further, this is a typical example of what we call “Linear Economy,” which follows a “take-make-consume-throw-away” pattern. When I reflect on my daily life, nearly all packages that contain food, medicines, personal care products, and electronic devices will be immediately tossed into trash bins. What a waste! Theoretically, they can still be reused to pack other products, saving money for us, reducing material and energy consumption for virgin package production, and thus eliminating embodied environmental and carbon footprint. However, there comes the question: if it were so easy to quit linear economy, why haven’t we done so?
This summer, I was fortunate to intern at a leading packaging company and explore the arena of sustainable packaging and circular economy. To be honest, I’ve never touched upon packaging industry, but I was encouraged to explore the Climate x Circular Economy as a GAUC Global Youth Ambassador. Despite being motivated by addressing increasing waste management pressure, circular economy is intrinsically connected with climate change mitigation. Transforming the linear economy into a circular one indicates a brand-new development pathway: improving people’s welfare in a manner that exploits as little resources as possible from Mother Earth but makes the best use of every bit of energy and material already existing in the economic system.
Back to the packaging industry, there has been some inspiring progress in sustainable transition globally. China, EU, and other countries have prioritized the waste management and circular economy in the sustainable development agenda, pressuring the packaging industry to fulfill their environmental compliance obligations. Other than the swiftly changing policy landscape, companies are initiating their own sustainable development campaigns. For instance, packaging companies are innovating their packaging products to be recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, green, and climate-friendly; FMCG giants are delivering their commitments, which includes expanding green procurement of packages, reducing end-of-life waste generation, reducing supply-chain-wide GHG emissions in alignment with SBTi and Paris Agreement, and educating consumers to change their consumption behavior. 
Emerging challenges, nevertheless, come along. Moving from linear to circular requires not only fragmented efforts, but systematic and transformational reinvention of our existing technologies, institutional arrangements, and most importantly, ideas. Our technologies were initially designed for a linear economy pattern, our institutional arrangements were not creating right incentives for circular economy activities, and our ideas for development still remain excessive, wasteful, and nature-negative. Let’s dive into the packaging industry: We heavily rely on traditional technologies, using some non-recyclable materials including PVC, PVDC, PET (for flexible packaging), and aluminum-plastic resins; we do not offer credible and sufficient policy incentives for sustainable packaging products, do not tax polluting single-use plastic bags and non-recyclable packages nor hold companies that produced those products accountable; we have come to use sophisticated packaging as a symbol of quality life, leading to overpackaging and material waste. These challenges directly hinder our effort to mobilize key stakeholders to close the circular economy loop and make it work (see the graph below).

Faced with the impending environmental and climate crisis, it’s time for us to reflect  on our economy and reconstruct the world. Policymakers may pace slowly, but individuals’ potential to drive consumption-side green transition is substantial. So, starting from day one, choose eco-friendly products, bring reused packages and bags for shopping, correctly classify the municipal waste, and proactively voice out for a green, low-carbon, and circular lifestyle. Don’t doubt the impact we may generate through these actions—every small step we take is a giant leap toward protecting our planet. 

Author: Xie Canyang, GAUC Global Youth Ambassador and student at Tsinghua University Editor: Cary Lee
Photo: mali maeder 

 The article reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily that of GAUC