Material management or mismanagement – thriving with less

When it comes to conservation and climate control, one needs to talk about resources and materials.

The foundation of all manufacturing and production is resource management. How exactly does one extract, process, utilize, or discard goods or gadgets?

The vast quantum of materials entering the global economy annually now exceeds 100 billion tons. This comes with huge repercussions. The global circularity index which measures materials that are plowed back into the global economy after the end of their lifespan has dropped from 9.1 to 7.2% revealing how heavy the reliance on virgin materials is.

A majority of planetary boundaries that measure environmental health across land, air, and water have been exceeded. The findings of the Circularity Gap Report 2023 reveal resource and material extraction and usage as the principal factor for such a breach in boundaries.

Earlier Circularity Gap Reports had linked GHG (global greenhouse gas emissions) to the extraction and usage of materials that accounted for nearly 70% of emissions.
As per UN advice, we are at risk of a societal breakdown if material management plans have not been adhered to that help to maintain planetary boundaries.
The earlier mentioned Circularity Gap Report 2023 indicates a positive outlook that material management strategies can help to maintain planetary boundaries by fulfilling people’s needs with less than a third of materials that are currently used.

Not the why but the how

Consumerism and progress call for a vast volume of materials and are fundamental for the development of society at large. But an incessant and wasteful pattern of usage is uncalled for.

Numerous nations are ramping up critical infrastructure across sectors to boost the quality of life of a growing population. While such a transformation is desired, this growth must radically consider the usage of renewable energy as well as recycled component percentages across all parameters of development.
Thus, in service of such needs, all stakeholders can steer away from an existing business-as-usual pathway and instill an approach that avoids breaches in planetary boundaries.

As per the Global Resources Outlook, the annual resource and material extraction has more than tripled since 1970 and has almost doubled since the year 2000. This in spite of the population has only doubled in that time. Today, the planet is consuming nearly 100 billion tons.

Extractive sectors now account for nearly half of the global carbon emissions. It is responsible for nearly 80% of biodiversity loss when all tallying of mining and farming is undertaken.

This accurately prompts all of us to an area where circular solutions can have a major impact. One needs to focus the bulk of the materials towards places that still building up capacities.

The demographic divide is also stark. Consumers in wealthy nations consume an average of 9.8 tons of resources a year which is nearly 13 times higher than consumers in poorer nations. Much of this is not visible as in the case of a mobile phone where a high volume and a wide range of materials are needed as manufacturing inputs.

The Road Ahead

Recycling and urban mining can help to mend the situation to an extent. However, the principles of use less, use longer, and use again must always take precedence.
As per research and reports across think tanks, a focus on four sectors within the global economy can help to cut down material extraction significantly.

Food production, construction, manufactured goods, and the transport sectors that affect the daily life of all consumers can help to stay within the planetary boundaries:

  • The food production system creates rampant land-use change and biodiversity loss due to crops needed to feed the livestock industry.

  • The construction and the built sector emits nearly 40% of GHGs

  • Manufacturing involves large residual amounts of chemicals and effluents that damage water bodies, air, and soil.

  • The global transport system releases nearly 25% of GHGs

Circular solutions can transform these sectors through a radical shift in lifestyle and collaboration across stakeholders that include governments and industries.
This can drive a global economy that emulates nature which is circular by pro-life by design. Basic solutions or practices that can be followed:

Use less -  These strategies reduce material and energy use. Positive outcomes by using less, focusing on renewable energy, and phasing out fossil fuels, among others.

Use again - Slow strategies can help to maintain resources in use for a longer time. This reduces material demand over a period of time.

Use again – Recycling strategies aim to recycle or reuse materials with inherent value. This increases the volume of secondary materials in the economy while lowering the demand for virgin extraction.

Urban mining too is a part of the circular framework and will play a major role in making metals and minerals available to industry by tapping into growing landfills and efficient waste collection measures.

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