A circular economy is needed to reduce overconsumption.

As opposed to the historical “take-make-waste” linear economy, a circular economy is centered around  “reduce, reuse and recycle.” The first of these three elements, to reduce overconsumption, is the most important because Earth cannot sustain increasing use of resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels and biomass, even if they are reused and recycled.

Global resource use has more than tripled since 1970, causing environmental and social harms ranging from biodiversity loss to human rights concerns in mining. For example, material resource extraction and processing accounts for over 55% of climate change impacts, up to 40% of airborne particulate matter health impacts, 90% of water stress and 90% of land-use related biodiversity loss. During the period 2000 to 2022, increasing affluence became the single largest driver of the growth of global resource use, followed by population increase.

While technology previously served to decrease resource use in all seven regions across the world, it has now driven increases in two regions. If historical trends continue, global resource use would grow by 60% from 2020 levels by 2060, contrary to the target of reducing  global material resource consumption by more than half by 2050.

Reducing overconsumption is also necessary to ensure equitable access to resources. Currently, 55% of the material footprint in the world is being consumed by 26% of the global population — and global resource consumption per capita is not decreasing. In 9 of the top 15 consuming countries, the material footprint per capita increased from 2012 to 2022.

Avoiding unnecessary consumption and scaling alternatives such as sharing and servicing will need to become a new standard of the economy. It is also important that companies improve material productivity.

Closing material circulation loops needs to be accelerated.

For system change toward a circular economy, products and their materials must be kept in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible. “Closing the loop” is done in two stages: recovering and retaining the value of the materials and components from waste products, and then using them to make new products. This displaces the sourcing of virgin, non-renewable materials that otherwise would have been used and reduces the consequential environmental impacts of extracting these materials.

The utilization of previously used components or parts, recycled materials and renewable materials is a key aspect of the circular economy because it will reduce the burden on sourcing new materials, such as copper from copper ore and plastic from fossil fuels. This can only occur if there are sufficient amounts of recycled materials and used components that are recovered and available. For biological products, resources that are sustainably managed and will be regenerated should be used.

Materials and components for reuse and recycling must be separated from waste streams so that maximum net value is gained. Recovering parts that can be used in remanufacturing a product typically has a higher net value than producing recycled materials because of the additional resources, such as energy, needed in the recycling process.

Overall, recycling rates of waste materials are increasing, but not fast enough. For example, data shows that the recycling rate of total waste generated in the European Union (EU) increased from 53% in 2010 to 58% in 2020. However, recycling data is not consistently defined or monitored around the world, making it difficult to understand the global status of recycling. In addition, even countries advancing circular economies, such as those in the EU, use recycled materials for only about 11% of their total material use. Acceleration of the use of recycled materials is necessary. It is also crucial that manufacturing companies start using materials that can be easily reused or recycled. For example, most plastic products cannot be reused for the same quality of products because of the mix of many materials in them. In other words, the design phase of products is just as important as the recycling stage.

Use products longer

Longer use of products is another key aspect of the circular economy, as it slows down the material circulation. Extending the product life defers the need to replace the product and therefore reduces the need for additional resources. It also reduces total emissions that come with the manufacturing process in the period by reducing the amount of production.

Data related to the longer use of products is fragmented or not monitored in a comparable way. More efforts related to monitoring as well as actions for durable design and better access to repair are necessary.

Interconnections between shifts and with other systems

The six shifts that the Systems Change Lab identified are deeply connected to each other and should not be considered independently. Otherwise, the loop cannot be closed and effective reduction of resource use cannot be achieved. For example, recycling at the end-of-use stage must be paired with increased use of recycled materials if a truly circular economy is to be realized. Another example is that even if a new production technology improves resource efficiency, it may create a rebound effect of increasing resource consumption because of lower costs.

Implementing a circular economy will help propel the world toward the goals of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), protecting biodiversity and promoting equity. For example, building design using less new/virgin material and food loss reductions can both significantly contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Minimizing environmental harms in resource extraction is directly related to the goal of protecting biodiversity because it reduces associated burdens on ecosystems. Longer use of products can contribute to limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C, but may be contradictory in certain cases. For example, in some cases GHG emissions may be reduced by promptly switching to a product that is energy efficient rather than extending the life of an old product. Reducing overconsumption of resources helps to ensure equitable access to resources.

It is vital to take a systems lens to understand these connections and trade-offs to enable a circular economy. 

Graphic showing life stages of materials and shifts for systems change

A circular economy is built off of the life stages of materials (inner circle) and six shifts for realizing a circular economy (outer circle). Materials’ life is formed in a circular manner in a circular economy, and the six shifts are linked to each other like a chain. Each shift is related mainly to one or two life stages.

The shift 6 shifts needed to transform the Circular Economy system

Click each shift to explore more detail and learn about key actions driving progress.

Decrease overconsumption

Human activities and needs should fit within the global capacity of our available natural resources. However, global consumption per capita is out of this balance and stagnant. In 9 of the top 15 consuming countries with the largest material footprints, material footprints per capita are still increasing. Decreasing overconsumption in high consuming societies is the most important shift. It is necessary to avoid unnecessary consumption and optimize our consumption patterns.

Use recycled, reused and renewable materials and components

In a circular economy, producers need to replace virgin, non-sustainable materials with recycled materials, previously used components, and sustainably produced renewable materials. This is necessary to close the material loop and reduce the burden on sourcing new materials and the associated environmental impacts.

Minimize environmental and social harms in resource extraction

Significant environmental and social harms can be caused by improper resource extraction, including deforestation and the destruction of habitats, overfishing, contaminating water sources, human rights violations and use of child labor. The degree to which human activities exceed what ecosystems can regenerate has been worsening on a global level, and harmful environmental and social impacts have not stopped at the local level. Effective measures must be taken and awareness of how resource extraction is linked to activities of producers, retailers and consumers must be raised.

Make production more resource efficient

Current production systems are still using resources inefficiently and generating losses of resources in production processes. Material productivity needs to be improved much more quickly than the current trend.

Use products longer

Resource use can be reduced when the functional lifetime of products is extended with durable design and services, such as maintenance, repair, updates, refurbishment and by consumers' behavioral changes, including product reuse. Products also need to be designed to anticipate and meet consumer needs throughout their lifetime, including upgraded features when appropriate.

Increase the quantity and value of resources recovered at end of use

Waste is a resource. End-of-use products and materials or components need to be sorted, collected and processed to obtain as high a material value as possible. Data shows that improvements are being made in areas such as certain recycling rates; however, more efforts are necessary for recycling of specific types of wastes and materials, as well as for reuse of parts. Products should be designed to be easily dismantled for reusable components or recycled.