2023: The Circular Economy In Review

2023: The Circular Economy In Review

2023 was a tough year for sustainability, even though renewable energy investments reached new highs. An economic downturn made people less likely to spend in general. It raised the stakes for consumers, companies, and communities that want to pivot to sustainability—strap in for a quick review of a year of steps forward and back.

As humans lived through the hottest year in history, concerns about reducing our species’ environmental impact spurred personal changes, investments in new infrastructure and businesses, and a raft of sustainable product claims that didn’t pan out set the stage for a national year of hard choices. 2024 will be the year when the United States decides to lead the way to a new economy – along with the commercial benefits of being first – or falls back on fossil fuels to our peril and that of the world.

During 2023, the idea of creating a circular economy captured the imagination of many more people. The reuse of materials is the basis for a comprehensive approach to rethinking humans’ relationship with stuff and nature. Statista reports that the circular economy will double in size by 2026 to $712 billion a year, delivering new options for low-impact living. There will be a lot to learn, just as during the introduction of consumer technology, and the result will be a more sustainable society. The more intimately each of us becomes with the impact of our choices, the more sophisticated and successful our embrace of reuse to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, water waste, and other environmental damage.

Circular economies will keep materials in use much longer, sometimes perpetually, to reduce the need for extraction. But the transition from our current take-make-waste lifestyles will also include the move to 100% renewable energy. This more service-oriented economy will build reuse and recycling services into products and packaging while embracing regenerative agriculture and equitable opportunity for all.

Recycling Highlights & Lowlights

There’s a lot of ground to cover. Some of the critical events and statistics for 2023 include:

U.S. recycling rates stayed stubbornly low, near the historical average of 32%. The U.S. ranks 105th globally for recycling, according to Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index. However, widespread private investment and the Environmental Protection Agency’s aggressive new National Recycling Goal of 50% by 2030 suggest improvements in processing capabilities are coming soon.

However, decades of under-investment in recycling and reuse by the United States has discouraged younger people from participating – they think it is a scam. A Researchscape International report sponsored by Boxed Water found that only 44% of Gen Z responded that they “always” or “often” recycled, compared to 67% of Baby Boomers, 59% of Gen X, and 50% of Millennials. An over-emphasis on recycling as the only solution is counterproductive at a time when it is clear that reducing purchases of unneeded items and reusing, repairing, and reselling products is also crucial to lowering human environmental impact.

A lack of dialogue between companies and customers has created an environment of distrust. A Bain & Company survey released this month found that companies and consumers are talking past one another, focusing on different aspects of a product’s sustainability. The report explained that companies emphasize how sustainable products are sourced and made. At the same time, consumers are “more concerned about how a product can be reused, its durability, and how it will minimize waste.” Consumer preferences suggest the reduce-reuse-repair-recycle approach is the right one. However, companies must still invent new business models based on long-lived, durable products that can be easily repaired, refurbished, resold, or reused.

Progress toward making recycling easy and convenient, however, has faltered. Following investigative reports that found the widely-used How2Recycle.info plastic shopping bag program was sending most collected materials to landfills, the BagandFilmRecycling.org database went offline. How2Recycle now points to Earth911, and we are working to establish a process for vetting locations in that program.

One promising path to improved recycling, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, saw some progress this year. Fourteen states considered laws that would require plastic manufacturers and companies that use plastic packaging to contribute to support collection and processing costs. Two states, Illinois and Maryland, passed watered-down EPR laws that call for research and establish boards to discuss future regulations. No states introduced new services, though Colorado banned plastic bags in retail stores as of January 1, 2024.

Transition Progress & Pushback

Other aspects of the transition have seen significant progress along with downright discouraging foot-dragging by companies and government.

EV sales hit a critical point, accounting for 18% of all vehicle sales globally, while U.S. EV sales rose to 7.9% of all cars and trucks sold. The economic downturn has suppressed spending on sustainable products – and many other things – while our willingness to pay a premium for environmentally responsible goods has increased. But for most people, sustainability remains a secondary consideration, following price and convenience.

Renewable energy investments have soared to $1.8 trillion in 2023, and 107GW of new capacity came online – “the largest absolute increase ever,” according to the International Energy Agency. But the economy has been a drag, as wind projects have faltered, declining in recent months to the lowest level since 2018. Today’s 440GW of installed global renewable energy generation could power almost three times the number of American homes.

At the United Nations COP28 climate meeting, oil-producing nations tried to undercut the efforts of more than 80 countries to include specific goals for ending oil- and coal-powered energy production. But in a stunning turnabout, on the final day of the meeting the delegates issued a ground-breaking statement that recognized the “need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 ℃ pathways.” For the first time, a COP called for “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

The outcome was far from certain until the last minute. Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe described COP28 as a conflict between science and greed, with greed getting the upper hand. Led by the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, the first draft of the final statement called for “enhancing efforts toward the substitution of unabated fossil fuels, substantially reducing non-CO2 emissions such as methane, and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” But the key term in that promise of action is “unabated,” which Hayhoe calls a” weasel word” because it “allows fossil fuel producers to weasel out of reductions by promising to capture their carbon at some time in the future (and when they get to that time, they’ll most likely claim it was too expensive/too hard to do what they promised).”

Many commentators, including scientists, environmental activists, and policymakers, point out that the final statement is packed with loopholes. Lisa Schipper of the University of Bonn in Germany, told the journal Nature that the phrase “transitioning away” is concerning. She said that a clear call for “phasing out” fossil fuels is needed.

“It is frustrating that thirty years of campaigning managed to get ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ in the COP text, but it is surrounded by so many loopholes that it has been rendered weak and ineffectual,” May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org, said in a written statement. “The prize is finally on the table – a phaseout of fossil fuels and a world powered by renewable energy – but rather than clearing the way to it, we’ve been presented with yet another set of distracting doors that could still hold oil and gas expansion, and we don’t know just where the finance will come from.”

The historic statement at COP28 must still overcome delaying tactics by the fossil fuel industry and oil-exporting nations, including the largest exporter, the United States. The International Energy Agency warned on the final day on the meetings in Dubai that fossil fuel companies’ pledges to cut emissions are insufficient to limit warming to 1.5C.

Whether this declaration of the end of the fossil fuel era will lead to changes remains to be seen. Despite predictions that they will peak during the middle of this decade, atmospheric CO2 continues to grow, reaching 420.46 parts per million (ppm) in November 2023, compared to 417.47 ppm a year earlier. Each of us needs to take action to cut our emissions and environmental impact, as well as to prepare for climate impacts as the world warms past 1.5C.

Now What?

National government efforts to reduce emissions appear to be stymied by oil and gas company lobbying and influence—state and local governments need help to finance improved environmental oversight and effective recycling and reuse infrastructure. Companies have demonstrated that they are good at making promises, not on following through. If the demise of BagandFilmRecycling.org due to lack of industry support is any indication, they have not stepped up to follow through on their recycling promises.

The choice to act remains with individual citizens, who have the power to cut spending on harmful products, reduce waste in general, and take action to reduce their impact in their daily life. Each of us can reduce, repair, reuse, donate, and recycle to reduce the burden on nature, including several simple new actions:

Help organize and promote local reuse and recycling programs. Join 2,500+ volunteer Earth911 curators who contribute information to the Earth911 Recycling Search platform – if you own a business that accepts recyclables, add your listing for free (if you need help managing your business listings, Earth911 offers paid support programs).

Once you have a sense of your local recycling and reuse landscape, become an activist for improvements:

  • Ask the retailers and manufacturers you buy from to step up and make recycling and reusing their products and packaging easier, more accessible, and widely discoverable with helpful information.
  • Visit your city or county’s solid waste management office and learn how they plan to invest in recycling and reuse infrastructure. If they don’t have plans, propose improvements, attend meetings, and share your stories. Want to contribute an article or video to Earth911 calling for action? Contact us, and we will work with you to prepare your idea.
  • Start something, whether a small recycling business, a community tool-sharing program, or a campaign to urge companies and governments to take action.

Make changes in your life to lower your impact. We make many daily choices that, with minor adjustments, can reduce our environmental footprint. Buy less stuff and spend a little more to buy durable, responsible products – you’ll come out ahead financially and help the planet. Earth911 will make some editorial changes to help you cut your impact by 50%, a reduction that will send shockwaves through the economy if enough people join in. We need to lead companies, not wait for them to provide solutions.

Finally, vote in every election and talk with the candidates about your environmental priorities. When you show up, politicians listen. Ultimately, you hold them accountable for their actions when you vote.

It’s On Us, All Of Us

Don’t give up! Youth report more discouragement and hopelessness about the environment and their future amid many positive steps that point the way out of the climate crisis. But after a half-decade of rapid, often unanticipated progress in environmental awareness, the transition to renewables, and an explosion of sustainably minded products and services that finally provide meaningful alternatives, society faces the last, desperate efforts to push back against change. Progress takes courage and patience. Be resolute in the face of a noisy but declining opposition.

Yes, the volume of anti-green complaints is louder than ever, but fewer companies and governments are speaking against decarbonization and sustainability. Now is the time to consolidate progress and accelerate the transition. You can make your greatest contribution by setting an example through your sustainable actions.


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