We need to talk about materials: how we extract, process, use and dispose of stuff. The sheer amount of global materials entering the global economy each year — now a record 100 billion tonnes—has repercussions. Huge ones. In only six years, global circularity — measuring the materials that are cycled back into the global economy after the end of their useful life — has dropped from 9.1 to 7.2%, revealing how heavily we rely on virgin materials. Five of the nine planetary boundaries that measure environmental health across land, sea and air have also been crossed. As I will investigate in this article based on the findings of the Circularity Gap Report 2023, spiralling material extraction and use is a direct factor in their catastrophic breach.
Circle Economy’s latest Report takes a birds-eye view of the global economy to map the reality of business-as-usual. Based on this, it sketches out a future within which global needs can be satisfied within the safe limits of the planet using circular economy solutions. It builds on the legacy of past Circularity Gap Reports, which have quantifiably linked global greenhouse gas emissions to material use in 2021 (finding that material use accounts for 70% of all emissions), as well clearly measuring the circularity of the global economy for the first time in 2018, and in the years thereafter.
The UN warns us that without material management strategies to keep us within planetary boundaries, we risk ‘total societal collapse’ driven by concurrent climate change disasters, economic vulnerabilities, political instabilities and ecosystem failures. The Circularity Gap Report 2023 shows us that with material management strategies we can reverse the overshoot on planetary boundaries by fulfilling people’s needs with one-third fewer materials.
We need materials, but the way we use them now is wildly inefficient and wasteful
Materials flow through our daily lives and are fundamental for development on Earth. Many countries are still building up crucial infrastructure to boost the living standards of their populations — without doubt a much needed transformation. All people deserve warmth and shelter, nutritious and available foods, and safe and accessible transport. Meanwhile, the global economy must drastically increase its use of renewable energy — a shift requiring large amounts of materials. In serving these needs, continuing down the path of business-as-usual will lead to the breach of more planetary boundaries and feed the widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest.
Yearly material extraction has more than tripled since 1970 and has almost doubled since the year 2000 — now sitting at 100 billion tonnes. And no, contrary to popular belief, this expansion cannot solely be blamed on population growth. The population has doubled since 1970, but per-person material use has only increased by a factor of 1.7. Material use outpaces population growth in high-income countries, while the opposite is true for lower-income countries. It’s extremely wealthy people — not all people — that push material extraction over safe limits. This already gives us a clue as to one place where circular solutions can have a huge impact: prioritising the bulk of materials for parts of the world that are still building up their capacities.
We must work to create a system that supports our environment and fosters equality: less equal societies are unhappy societies. And, as the scientists behind the Planetary Boundary framework assert: ‘crossing [our planet’s limits] increases the risk of causing irreversible environmental changes, threatening human life on Earth.’ 
We cannot recycle our way out of this situation: use less, use longer, make clean and use again!
The Report asserts that we only need to focus on four key systems within the global economy to deliver a huge dent in material use — cutting it by around one-third — and reverse the overshoot on planetary boundaries: Food systems, the Built Environment, Manufactured goods and consumables and Mobility and transport. These systems — aside from being crucial for everyday life — currently contribute the most to the current overshoot on the planetary boundaries:
- The global Food system is by far the largest driver of land-use change and biodiversity loss in the world, largely due to the amount of land taken and used to grow crops to feed livestock.
- The global Built Environment is a major driver of ocean acidification and climate change — largely because it emits 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- The global Manufacturing system releases huge amounts of chemicals and novel entities, often toxic or radioactive, that drive pollution and worsens water stress, soil health, biosphere integrity and more.
- The global Mobility and transport system release about 25% of all greenhouse gases emissions and also drive huge amounts of biodiversity loss due to the construction and expansion of major road corridors, for example.
- Overall, material extraction and use is a strong proxy for environmental damage — driving over 90% of total global biodiversity loss and water stress, for example.
In a world with a growing population, the systems that provide us with crucial services and goods are no longer fit for purpose. Yet circular solutions based on four principles can transform these systems: some so simple that you’d wonder why we haven’t always done things this way. Others will require radical collaboration between a variety of actors from industry and government and a radical shift in the lifestyles of the world’s wealthiest. But all should inspire us to create an economy that emulates nature: naturally circular and supporting life.
Applying solutions stemming from four principles has a transformative impact on the global economy: allowing us to fulfil people’s needs with 70% of the materials we now use and reversing the overshoot on five of the nine planetary boundaries.
Narrowing material flows: use less.
These strategies reduce material and energy use. Currently, material use is highly inefficient and ineffective; we can deliver similar social outcomes by using much less and phasing out fossil fuels, for example. This doesn’t mean being worse off, but rather focussing on using materials efficiently: think about riding a bike instead of driving a car, eating less meat and living in a space that suits your needs. Using less is a core tenet of the circular economy— yet currently, the threshold for sustainable consumption, 8 tonnes per person, is being surpassed by 1.5 times.
Slowing material flows: use longer.
Slow strategies aim to keep materials in use for as long as possible, for example, through design for durability and repairability. A more circular economy is also a slower one: materials, components and products — and even buildings and infrastructure — that we lock in stocks are made to last. This will lower material demand in the long run, in essence also serving to narrow resource flows.’
Regenerating material flows: make clean.
Regenerate strategies phase out hazardous or toxic materials and processes, and substitute them with regenerative biomass resources. A circular economy aims to mimic natural cycles — by shifting to more regenerative farming practices, for example — while also maximising the share of circular biomass that enters the economy. Regeneration can happen both at the systems level (by designing regenerative processes such as regenerative agriculture) as well as at the product level (by switching synthetic to organic fertilisers, for example).
Cycle material flows: use again.
Cycle strategies aim to cycle and reuse materials at their highest value: they maximise the volume of secondary materials re-entering the economy, ultimately minimising the need for virgin material inputs and, therefore, also narrowing flows. Of course, virgin materials will always be needed to a degree: all materials degrade and can’t be cycled infinitely, use energy, and require blending with virgin materials to maintain strength and functionality.
See the Report for a full list of the 16 circular solutions.
A global picture of material use: some countries need to reduce, others need to stabilise
There is currently enough wealth and materials in the world to provide a good quality of life to every single human being on this planet, but our methods of organisation are not fit for purpose. The Circularity Gap Report dives into the approach different countries can take, such as reducing consumption and making the most of the buildings we already have in high-consumption countries (such as many EU Member States and the US). Countries that have rapidly urbanised in recent years, such as those in Latin America and China, can aim to stabilise their spiralling material use, while those that are building up infrastructure and increasingly providing social needs, such as Sub-Saharan African countries and Pakistan, can even increase their material use.
To really reduce the number of materials entering our economy and ensure that the countries that need them the most are prioritized, there must be a global mindset shift. We need a shared vision that unites us towards a common purpose: thriving within the safe limits of our planet. This kind of shift will not happen overnight, but it will be crucial in integrating circularly into our global economy. The solutions are in our hands.
 Stockholm Resilience Centre. (n.d.). Planetary boundaries. Retrieved from: Stockholm Resilience Centre website
 Steinmann, Z. J., Schipper, A. M., Hauck, M., Giljum, S., Wernet, G., & Huijbregts, M. A. (2017). Resource footprints are good proxies of environmental damage. Environmental Science & Technology, 51(11), 6360-6366. doi:10.1021/acs.est.7b00698
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.