Can a Circular Economy Help Clean Up the Ocean?

 
Image of Hein Wagner sitting at Chapmans Peak looking out onto the ocean as the sun has just set.
 
 

Wouldn’t it be great it if we could celebrate World Water Day by waking up to a plastic-free ocean? That may sound like wishful thinking, when almost 9 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans annually. But there may be hope in sight.

The “take, make, waste” approach of the linear economy we live in has resulted in a growing shortage of raw materials and a massive pollution problem, especially when it comes to plastic. Nearly 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of it for single use.

Plastics also contribute to global warming through the production of greenhouse gases when they are exposed to sunlight and degrade, as well as when they are burned. Even half a degree of warming can cause an existential crisis we can barely imagine and if we don’t halt it, we will experience extreme heat, rising sea levels, irreversible loss of all species, and massive decline in crop yields and fisheries.

But the crisis can be solved! As 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who initiated a school strike to raise awareness of global warming said in her TED talk, “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

Heeding the Call

The good news is that citizens, governments, and corporations around the world do seem to be waking up, and we do have solutions.

“The climate is everyone’s responsibility,” says Hein Wagner, an inspirational ambassador for sustainable business. Blind since birth, Wagner is confident that you can achieve anything you set your mind to — even something monumental like turning the tide of climate change: “It’s not too late for each and every one of us to take steps that will help turn the tide.”

One positive result of the mounting crisis is the growing move away from a linear “take, make, waste” economy, to a circular one that aims to “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

“I’m particularly inspired by intelligent companies that maximize the use of existing assets while reducing dependence on new raw materials and minimizing waste,” says Wagner.

One such inspirational company is Melia Hotels. The chain was using 22 million plastic bottles annually but early last year the hospitality giant announced plans to eliminate single-use plastic in all its hotels by the end of 2019. The intent to reduce or eliminate high-impact waste from the ecosystem is part of the chain’s environmental strategy, which involves moving toward a circular economy model.

Another inspirational gamechanger is the Veolia Group, a global leader in water, waste, and energy management, which has adopted a circular model to protect the seas and oceans by combating land-based pollution, preventing waste from entering the ocean, and transforming plastic waste into resources. To enable efficient enterprise management, for example, Veolia Australia and New Zealand runs SAP S/4HANA as its digital core in partnership with IBM.

Leaving the Linear Mindset Behind

There is plenty of evidence showing that the world can maximize the chances of avoiding dangerous climate change by moving to a circular economy. According to the Circularity Gap Report 2019 from Netherlands-based social enterprise Circle Economy, only nine percent of the global economy is circular, meaning that only nine percent of the 92.8 billion tons of minerals, fossil fuels, metals, and biomass that enter the economy are reused annually. Circle Economy calculates that 62 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, excluding those from land use and forestry, are released during the extraction, processing, and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs; 38 percent are emitted in the delivery and use of products and services.

Recycling, greater resource efficiency, and circular business models offer huge opportunities to reduce emissions. A systemic approach to applying these strategies would tip the balance in the battle against global warming, the report concludes.

There is a lot of work to be done if we want to eliminate waste from the core of the world’s global business model. What’s the best way to go about it?

Sharing Data for Intelligent Solutions

Halting climate change is one the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals(UN SDGs). Like Melia and Veolia, many companies around the world today are committed to achieving these goals to secure a better future for the planet, but going it alone is a hard task. Collaboration makes sense.

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One pioneer in this area is the UK Plastics Pact, a trailblazing collaborative initiative that is creating a circular economy for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with the UK government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to tackle the scourge of plastic waste and replace single-use packaging by 2025 with reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging. The organization partnered with SAP to create the “Plastics Cloud,” a platform to collect data across the global supply chain.

“The platform is a crucial tool in addressing the problem because there’s so much information being generated within the plastics supply chain, but no single means to access that information, and no way to manage or analyze it,” says Stephen Jamieson, head of SAP Leonardo, SAP UK & Ireland. “Through informed partnerships with everyone impacted by this problem, we can use SAP Leonardo technologies, including machine learning, to share real-time data that will address responsible consumption and sustainable goals while retaining trust and privacy compliance.”

“Initiatives like the UK Plastics Pact can be very effective because they unite all stakeholders — brands, retailers, manufacturers, recyclers, NGOs, governments and local authorities — around a specific goal,” says Wagner. “And that gives us hope when it comes to tackling challenges of this magnitude.”

With enterprises like Veolia and Melia Hotels and initiatives like the UK Plastics Pact for zero waste leading the way, we may be waking up to plastic-free oceans on a World Water Day in the not too distant future.