The circular, green, future in 2050

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The approach of circular economy is: make – use – maintain/ reuse/ remanufacture/ recycle. Waste should be seen as source of valuable resources. Products should be repaired, remanufactured and reused.
A genius idea in times when resources get scarce – be it oil, water or different metals and when the world has to face a growing population. It is estimated that 9.2 billion people will live on earth in 2050 (UN).

The world in 2050: That world is a fair, high-tech and sustainable one – with advances that mean food for all, a reformed capitalism, and a circular economy.

But the road getting there will not be easy.

The more I look at the two sides – the environment and the economy – the more convinced I become that the way forward is to fully integrate resource efficiency into the way we live and do business in the world.

We know why a circular economy is a good idea. At the moment the world is still locked into a linear production chain that is resource intensive. We obtain resources and then discard them as waste.

In a circular economy, almost nothing is wasted.

Reuse and remanufacturing is standard practice, and circularity is built into the fabric of that society. There is less waste to deal with, and more is generated from limited resources. The new technologies created then bolster the competitive position on the world stage.

The full potential and value is lost. But in a world where the global population rises by more than 200 000 every day, with all the demand that places on land, water, food, feed, fibre, raw materials and energy, this is no longer sustainable.


By 2050 we would need three times more resources than we currently use. And the demand for food, feed and fibre will rise by 70%. Yet more than half the ecosystems these resources depend on are already degraded, or are being used beyond their natural limits.

We need our industrial system to behave much more like an eco-system. In an eco-system, the waste of one species is the resource to another. We need to recalibrate so that the output of one industry becomes automatically the input of another.

Continuously advancing waste management remains a priority, through incentives and support for waste reduction as well as high-quality separation and collection systems. The latter ensure that resources stay within the circle and are available for future use.

Waste is valuable

Waste is not managed as well as it could be. In 2012 total waste production in the EU amounted to 2,5 billion tons, an average of 5 tons per inhabitant and per year. From this total only a limited share of 36% was effectively recycled. Getting maximum value from resources requires action at all stages of the life cycle of products.

There needs to be circular economy processes reflected from the extraction of raw material to the product design, production and production of goods and through an increasing use of secondary raw-materials.

  • Products that last longer, have a longer warranty, or come with repair manuals and spare parts would help in this sense
  • The distribution and consumption of goods must be part of that process
  • Too much plastic waste, which could be recycled, and be a valuable resource, ends up as micro-plastics in our seas
  • Repair and re-use schemes should be advanced
  • And we should be capable of creating a genuine market for recycles.

We need a combined approach, where smart regulation is blended with market-based instruments, innovation and incentives. These would provide businesses, including SMEs, with concrete tools and instruments and incentives to promote the transition to a circular economy.

Roadmap for the circular economy

  • upstream: in the production and use phase, before products become waste
  • downstream: after products are no longer waste, looking at what can be done to encourage and develop a market for the recycled products.

Europe already has a wide range of rules and instruments contributing to a circular economy: for instance in the area of emissions, waste or chemicals. If a product contains hazardous substances, for instance, it cannot be recycled at high level of quality.

I am convinced that by turning into a truly recycling society we will not only serve the environment, but also ourselves.


Have you seen this?

Circular economy: cheaper resources, more jobs (dossier)

Industries: models for decision makers (dossier)

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