The amount of material consumed by humanity has passed 100bn tonnes every year, a report has revealed, but the proportion being recycled is falling.
The climate and wildlife emergencies are driven by the unsustainable extraction of fossil fuels, metals, building materials and trees. The report’s authors warn that treating the world’s resources as limitless is leading towards global disaster.
The materials used by the global economy have quadrupled since 1970, far faster than the population, which has doubled. In the last two years, consumption has jumped by more than 8% but the reuse of resources has fallen from 9.1% to 8.6%.
The report, by the Circle Economy thinktank, was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It shows that, on average, every person on Earth uses more than 13 tonnes of materials per year. But the report also found that some nations are making steps towards circular economies in which renewable energy underpins systems where waste and pollution are reduced to zero.
“We risk global disaster if we continue to treat the world’s resources as if they are limitless,” said Harald Friedl, the chief executive of Circle Economy. “Governments must urgently adopt circular economy solutions if we want to achieve a high quality of life for close to 10bn people by mid-century without destabilising critical planetary processes.”
Marc de Wit, the report’s lead author, said: “We are still fuelling our growth in population and affluence by the extraction of virgin materials. We can’t do this indefinitely – our hunger for virgin material needs to be halted.”
The report found that 100.6bn tonnes of materials were consumed in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. Half of the total is sand, clay, gravel and cement used for building, along with the other minerals quarried to produce fertiliser. Coal, oil and gas make up 15% and metal ores 10%. The final quarter are the plants and trees used for food and fuel.
The lion’s share of the materials – 40% – is turned into housing. Other major categories include food, transport, healthcare, communications, and consumer goods such as clothes and furniture.
Almost a third of the annual materials remain in use after a year, such as buildings and vehicles. But 15% is emitted into the atmosphere as climate-heating gases and nearly a quarter is discarded into the environment, such as plastic in waterways and oceans. A third of the materials is treated as waste, mostly going to landfill and mining spoil heaps. Just 8.6% is recycled.
“This report sparks an alarm for all governments,” said Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s environment minister. “We need to deploy all the policies to really catalyse this transformation [to a circular economy].”
Cristianne Close of the conservation group WWF said: “The circular economy provides a framework for reducing our impacts, protecting ecosystems and living within the means of one planet.”
The report said increasing recycling can make economies more competitive, improve living conditions and help to meet emissions targets and avoid deforestation. It reported that 13 European countries have adopted circular economy roadmaps, including France, Germany and Spain, and that Colombia became the first Latin American country to launch a similar policy in 2019.
China’s ban on waste imports aims to encourage domestic recycling, the report said, but has also stimulated the development of circular economy strategies in Australia and other countries which previously exported their waste to China.
Janez Potočnik, a former European environment commissioner and the co-chair of the UN Environment Programme international resource panel, said the world needed to learn to do more with less and replace ownership with sharing, as is increasingly being seen with cars.