Getting to net zero will involve more than simply substituting emissions-intensive technologies with greener alternatives.

If we continue with the same rates of population growth and consumption that we have now, we will need 2.3 planets’ worth of resources by 2050 just to maintain current levels. Five Earths would be needed to satisfy the global need for resources every year if everyone lived like people do in the US. These are the stark warnings calculated from the annual National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts produced by the Footprint Data Network.

One potential solution to this devastating scenario is to reimagine the global economic infrastructure and rethink how we design, make, transport and use the things we need, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear.

By recycling and remanufacturing, industry can start to align with global
net-zero targets. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as a “systems solution framework that tackles global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution”. Its founder, former yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, explains: “A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment. Surely there is a way where we can build our economy by design from the outset so that it could be regenerative and restorative for the long term.”

What’s exciting, she says, is that there has never been a better time than now to make it happen. “There has been an incredible momentum building over the last few years with extraordinary take up from businesses and governments. We still have a long way to go, but we have seen change at a pace we have never seen before.” 

23. Tackling food waste

According to a recent ISS ESG report, current food processes account for one-third of global greenhouse emissions. A circular scenario for food, claims the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, could reduce annual CO2 emissions of the food system by 49 percent. 

Not only is the industry a massive polluter, it is also extremely wasteful, with non-profit organisation WRAP claiming that more than a third of all food produced globally goes to waste. 

Yet very few companies are looking to introduce initiatives to help reduce food waste. ISS ESG’s latest corporate ratings around sustainability found that only 25 percent of food producers, restaurants and manufacturers have a strategy to minimise wastage. “The impact that this industry has on the environment and society is vast and significant,” says Mirtha Kastrapeli, executive director at ISS ESG. “This makes it a perfect industry to think about applying circular economy principles.”

Kastrapeli explains that the areas where investment is having the most impact are among companies that have employed regenerative agricultural practices, and that rely on organic rather than synthetic fertilisers. “We are also looking at greater crop variation or crop rotation instead of relying on monoculture that can have very negative impacts on the environment,” she says. “When it comes to reducing food waste, it is about strategies that allow for a better match of supply and demand.”  

Another focus for investment is on using food byproducts as ingredients and using food waste to generate energy to reduce overall methane emissions. Kastrapeli adds: “These transformations are hard; we recognise that they require a lot of investment, innovation and collaboration. But we are hoping that we will see a greater adoption of these practices.”

24. Increasing sharing 

A seemingly simple way to reduce carbon emissions and cut down on waste is to share resources. It is something that can be done at both a corporate and individual level and across a range of industries. 

Some of the greatest strides in this field are being taken in the transport sector, with a slew of networks, apps and services providing lift-sharing. Organisations such as Liftshare, Scoot and Jambusters operate a variety of models to facilitate shared travel or create transport hubs where people can exchange information and plan journeys.

Collaborative Mobility UK (CoMoUK) is the national charity dedicated to the social, economic and environmental benefits of shared transport. It works collaboratively with public, private and third-sector organisations, conducts research and advises public authorities on shared transport and sustainable transport more broadly.

Richard Dilks, chief executive of the charity, says: “Greenhouse gas emissions from road transport currently make up around a fifth of the UK’s total emissions, and transport is the largest-emitting single economic sector. Shared transport schemes help to reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road network, and encourage active travel such as walking, wheeling and cycling, while supporting the UK’s net-zero ambitions.”

According to Dilks, bike-share schemes across the UK reduce car mileage for each user by an estimated 3.7 miles every week, while the number of active car club members in the UK almost doubled last year – taking more than 116,000 privately owned vehicles off the roads. “Changing the way people move around is key to delivering net zero, and ambitious targets on climate change won’t be met without investing in and promoting shared transport.”

25. Establish a right to repair

For decades, rampant consumerism has been one of the major drivers of economic growth, with the constant creation of new devices and appliances replacing older versions well before their usefulness has expired. 

This, of course, is unsustainable and a massive contributor to carbon emissions. The Right to Repair campaign involves a set of policy demands by the repair community that asks legislators for binding regulations to make products more repairable and longer-lasting – starting with electronic devices and electrical appliances. 

The key aspects are: designing products so that they are easier to disassemble for repair; making all spare parts as well as comprehensive repair guides available to both professional repairers and the general public; ensuring long-term software and security support; and making repair affordable by reducing the cost of spare parts as well as developing other fiscal incentives. 

“This is important because electronic waste is one of the fastest streams of waste globally, and the current level of consumption is simply unsustainable,” says Ugo Vallauri, co-director of the Restart Project, a lobbying, education and awareness charity, and founding and steering member of the European Right to Repair Campaign. 

“People are increasingly frustrated with throwaway products,” says Vallauri. “We contribute insights from data by community repair initiatives on major barriers to repair, and how to remove them. For most products, the vast majority of the environmental footprint occurs at manufacturing stage. Therefore, extending the useful lifetime of products as much as possible is essential. For instance, 79 percent of a smartphone’s environmental impact in CO2 equivalent occurs before it’s ever been switched on.”

26. Closing the loop on packaging

Although gaining some traction among consumers with companies such as Hisbe and Abel & Cole making headlines, ‘zero packaging’ is still relatively nascent on the high street and in supermarkets. 

According to WRAP, a climate action non-governmental organisation, we produce around 141 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year globally. Around a third of all plastic packaging put on the global market leaks from collection systems, polluting the environment, while plastic production, use and disposal contributes about 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually. Of the 16 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste generated in the EU, only 30 percent gets recycled. 

MiWa is a Czech tech company aiming to streamline and decarbonise the consumer process by moving it from buying to renting packaging. Executive director Mirek Lizec explains: “We have created a circular system of reusable capsules, which, by using smart technology, are adaptable for the logistics of today’s supermarket chains. Our mission is to make waste-free shopping a new standard. Why? Because we believe that only a solution applicable to a wide range of retailers can make a true impact on the environment.”

With the product range still at pilot stage, Lizec says the key to more widespread use is for retailers and brands to convince consumers they are taking zero packaging seriously. “We have to remove the barriers to access for consumers and make the circular process convenient. It helps producers and retailers engage with the circular economy as there is zero packaging throughout the value chain.” 

27. Ramping up recycling and remanufacturing

Recycling is probably one of the most prominent features on the circular economy landscape; something that touches everyone in their everyday lives. Yet the infrastructure for recycling in the UK and around the world still has major inefficiencies. 

“There are a number of different challenges to recycling,” says Fidelity International portfolio manager Alexander Laing. “There are technological, behavioural and economic challenges and all three impact every part of the supply chain. Clearly, the economic driver is to pursue cheaper and non-circular products. Plastic is very cheap for its weight and durability. Carton board or aluminium packaging is not economic and companies are not going to adopt them if it’s going to lead to compression of their margins.”

Investors, suggests Laing, must understand there is a cost to pursuing sustainability and that in the short term there will be challenges. “Whether it is about scaling up industries or driving costs down, moving towards a more sustainable world won’t necessarily come for free.”

Although integral to a sustainable framework, recycling is only one segment of a much wider process of integration and remanufacturing that a fully functioning circular economy envisions. “People often consider the circular economy to be an end-of-life consideration; when you have used your plastic or packaging, you recycle it,” Laing says. “It is certainly a large part of it but in my view, that’s a relatively narrow definition. A genuine circular economy requires a new paradigm, not simply improving the existing linear model. The idea is to eliminate waste at every point of the value chain.”

It is not only in recycling where we need to shift the dial, but also throughout the manufacturing and delivery process, says Laing. “The goal is to make manufacturing as efficient as possible to ensure there’s limited waste, and to extend the life of products as much as you possibly can,” he says. “From an investment perspective, that spans sectors, markets, size of companies, technologies, and even business models. We need to look at companies that are bringing circular principles into their businesses either as adopters, enablers or beneficiaries.”

Remanufacturing is part of this, where recycled materials or repaired parts are reused to rebuild a product. The manufacturing industry is a major consumer of material and energy, as well as a significant source of waste. Remanufacturing has proven benefits in material, emissions and financial terms, but its scope requires expansion in existing and new product areas.

David Fitzsimons, director of the European Remanufacturing Council, says: “The important thing about remanufacturing is that it is an industrial process that can be standardised at scale. It is not just material recycling; it is keeping a product or component in life for longer. Most remanufacturing is currently in the business-to-business world. The real challenge is to move that into the business-to-consumer world. That is the way we really will be able to normalise remanufacturing as part of the lifecycles of products.”