According to a recent report by the Circle Economy thinktank, humanity has hit a record by consuming 100 billion tons of materials in 2017, the most recent data available. Materials used globally have quadrupled since 1970, far faster than the population which has doubled. Consumption in the last two years alone has risen by more than 8%, with every person on planet Earth using more than 13 tons of materials a year.
“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 to The Guardian. “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 destabilizing critical planetary processes.”
According to the report, half of the 100.6 billion tons of materials were used for building (sand, clay, gravel, and cement) as well as metals quarried to make fertilizer. Fossil fuel extraction (coal, oil, and gas) made up 15% and metal ores 10%. The remaining 25% was the consumption of trees and plants for food and fuel.
These raw materials were turned primarily into housing (40%), followed by food (21.3%), healthcare (9.3%), transport (8.7%), communications (5.6%), and other consumer goods (6.9%) like clothing and furniture.
While our demand for materials seems insatiable, the amount being recycled is falling. The reuse of resources dipped from 9.1% to 8.6%.
Marc de Wit, the report’s lead author, said to The Guardian: “We are still fueling 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.”
But there were some significant steps forward. Thirteen European nations are moving towards circular economies, reducing pollution and waste to zero as they utilize renewable energies, including Germany, France, and Spain. Colombia became the first Latin American country to adopt similar sustainable policies, and Australia is making strides to develop stronger recycling and circular economy strategies after China banned waste imports.
Cristianne Close of the conservation group WWF said to The Guardian: “The circular economy provides a framework for reducing our impacts, protecting ecosystems and living within the means of one planet.”