Resource Conservation and the Circular Economy

Absolute raw material consumption in industrialised countries is too high in relation to the planet’s limits. Accordingly, global sustainable development centres around facilitating sustainable consumption and production patterns and drastically cutting demand for resources. The circular economy is one option to decouple growth from non-renewable resource consumption.

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Leveraging sustainable production to decouple growth and resource consumption

Global economic growth and the consumption of resources are closely linked. While our materials consumption is increasing more slowly than economic growth, the two have so far remained largely intertwined and resource consumption continues to rise. If we are to secure ongoing prosperity, current production and consumption patterns must become more sustainable while resources must be used and consumed with greater efficiency. The German Sustainable Development Strategy sets out these principles, while the EU prescribes how waste should be handled correctly, with the avoidance of waste creation prioritised over reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal. Indeed, the Ecodesign Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive also lay out product-specific regulations. Manufacturers in particular have a responsibility to use resources more sparingly and make products with longer lifetimes.

The economy of the future is circular

The circular economy has an important role to play in solving the problem of resource scarcity, as it links both economic and environmental potential. A sustainable circular economy sees materials and substances kept in use within products for as long as possible before they are reclaimed for future production processes. As such, they never permanently leave the cycle as waste. This way, resources fed into the cycle contribute for longer and more often to create value within the economy – all without causing harm to the environment by extracting new resources.

The challenge here is to view a product’s lifecycle holistically – from the initial design stage to production, product usage and collection at its end of life and finally feeding the product’s individual component materials back into the cycle. This will require inter-stakeholder collaboration and digital communication throughout the entire value chain. Decisions made as early as the design stage, for example, can impact a product’s lifespan, how easy it is to repair, its continued use or reuse and ultimately how it can be recycled.

The role of the Council for Sustainable Development

The German Council for Sustainable Development advocates an absolute reduction in the consumption of primary raw materials and calls for the development of a circular economy. Germany must therefore develop, manage and implement a cross-ministerial strategy in line with efforts at EU level and alongside international partner nations.

2021 saw the RNE publish a statement on the circular economy with recommendations on the role this type of economy can play in realising the sustainable transition. Such recommendations include paying targeted attention to ensuring products can be repaired, reused and recycled where at all possible as early as the product design stage and promoting secondary raw material marketability and acceptance. Additional publications from the German Council for Sustainable Development on resource conservation and the circular economy can be found here.