In her Hugo-finalist novel Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers envisions a future where humanity travels the galaxy in generational ships, their entire civilisation dependent on a well-oiled system of reusing and recycling resources. Every waste product is expertly crafted into something else, sustaining the space travellers for generations.
Although this book is science fiction, the concept behind the economy used by this spaceborn civilisation is not. Economists have been talking about this idea – called a ‘circular economy’ – for over 50 years.
The notion itself is pretty simple: In its ideal form, a circular economy is a system where our products and the resources that go into them can be simply and easily reused, repaired, remade and recycled, with absolutely nothing going to landfill.
When we compare this idea to what we’re currently doing – digging up resources, manufacturing a product, using it for a short time, and then throwing it away, generating massive amounts of unusable waste that takes up space and ruins our health – a circular economy starts looking extremely attractive.
So why are we still dumping so much garbage? Why are the products we buy still nearly always wrapped in virgin plastic?
“I think it is possible, but hard, to imagine a sustainable society because it means a shift of lifestyle and economic systems, which we are currently so stuck in we can’t imagine alternatives,” says Ed Morgan, a researcher from Griffith University in Australia, who works on climate, natural resources, and government planning.
“But no one in a monarchy could imagine being in a democracy!”
We don’t have to look far to find clear examples that demonstrate how our current arrangement of managing resources in a linear fashion is broken.
For example, it’s easy to think we’re all making great headway on supporting a circular economy when we put our tin cans into the recycling bin… Except in 2018, the economically developed world had a rude awakening to a ‘recycling crisis’, when it came to light that millions of tons of our recycling were simply being shipped to China.
Much of that material was not being recycled at all. Right now, we’re back at the drawing board trying to work out what to do with all this ‘recyclable’ waste we keep generating.
Breaking the cycle entirely and moving away from our current linear system may seem like an enormous challenge, but there are groups working towards it, already figuring out the nuts and bolts of circular economies at various scales.
“There are lots of ways to make us more sustainable, many of which we haven’t harnessed. It does mean a shift of lifestyle for many. But, and I think this is key, it doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘backward’ change,” Morgan told ScienceAlert.
“It comes back to what is actually important to us. I remember one person I heard speak say when it comes down to it, what they want is time with their kids and a glass of wine. We should be able to do this sustainably.”
So, with that in mind – how do we start creating circular systems? Even a small change is better than nothing.
Take glass, for example. Glass containers are regularly found in the supermarket; it’s one of the easiest materials to melt into something else. But in Australia and many places around the world, it’s cheaper to import brand new glass bottles than do anything with the ‘recycled’ glass we all so dutifully put in the recycling bin.
In contrast, The Beer Store in Canada has been collecting and reusing its beer bottles since 1927. The business has one of the highest recovery rates in North America: 99 percent of their bottles are returned and refilled.
One bottle in this cycle will be returned and refilled on average 15 times before it breaks and is recycled into new glass. The glass bottles are reused and refilled, which takes less energy and resources than recycling them into something new, and the company itself is managing the waste it produces – something bigger companies should really be taking a hard look at.
This shows how a circular economy can work on a small scale, in a single business, with a single resource.
But we can also go bigger. What about cities?
When you think of futuristic cities, you might think of flying cars or a Wall-E-like trash city, but Steffen Lehmann, an environmental architect at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is picturing microclimates and sustainable buildings.
Urban Nexus, a project Lehmann is working on, is trying to achieve an exciting goal – using the waste of one system to power another. Our water, energy, food and waste are usually seen as separate sectors, but Lehmann explains this doesn’t have to be the case. In an ideal world the waste of one sector would flow into the next one to be used as a resource.
“It’s very important to understand the inter-connectedness and nexus of the various currently separated sectors,” he explains.
“Cities have a governance that is based on the separation of these sectors – for example, the water management people do not talk to the waste management folks in the administration. A first step is to bring these different but inter-connected sectors closer together.”
In a paper published in the journal City, Culture and Society back in 2017, Lehmann demonstrates how waste water that was polluting nearby creeks in a small town in the Philippines was successfully rerouted into a system producing biogas and fertiliser.
Not only did this approach clean up the local ecosystem, it also provided the town with a viable product to use in other economic activities.
So, how big could we go? Do we have the ability to become the Spaceborn Few overnight?
“It’s impossible to achieve zero waste, or zero emissions, because there are laws of physics and chemistry that we need to follow,” explains Anthony Halog, an ecology and bioeconomy researcher at the University of Queensland.
“But why do we bother doing it? I think in my opinion, it’s better to be doing something. Moving towards that direction – towards zero waste and zero emissions.”
Working towards a system where all of our stuff lasts longer, is repairable, and can be recycled at the end of its life would take a lot of effort and resources. As would changing our cities and industrial systems to interconnectedly use each other’s waste.
“For a circular economy to be successful, it has to be holistic and systemic in approach,” says Halog.
“Whether we talk about cities, we talk about products, we talk about countries, we need to really look at in a systemic way. Because otherwise, it’s just a Band-Aid approach.”
But at this point, business as usual is a much worse option. Building and sustaining large-scale circular economies would at least give us a fighting chance – after all, Earth is just one big generational ship, complete with finite resources and a limited capacity to contain our waste.
Right now, it’s the only one we have. And we’re going to have to start reusing stuff much more efficiently, if we want our ship to last.