What does circularity mean and why is it important for the environment? Here’s how we can implement a sustainable, circular economy in South Africa.
What Does Circularity Mean in the South African Context?
A plastic bag still has a long journey to make after you throw it away. Once it’s travelled to a dumpsite by truck, it ends up in a landfill with all kinds of rubbish until it finally decomposes a generation later. This scenario is only one way of dealing with waste. We could also send plastic bags to recycling plants where people turn them into new products so they never end up in a rubbish dump.
Option two is what we call circularity or a circular economy. It means re-using materials such as plastic, paper, metal, and glass instead of wasting them.
How Does a Circular Economy Work?
As the name suggests, circular economies move materials around in circles. For example, instead of throwing old posters, textbooks, and other paper products away, businesses in a circular economy would collect and recycle them to make newspapers.
The opposite of a circular economy is a linear or straight-line economy. Linear economies involve extracting raw materials from the earth, using them to manufacture products, and throwing those products away. Unfortunately, most economies follow this pattern, which can be very wasteful over time.
In a circular economy, everything that still has value gets turned into something new instead of going to a landfill. Some materials, like glass, can be recycled again and again forever, and never need to go to waste.
Why is a Circular Economy Important?
Circularity is important because it reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills or ends up in our oceans. Less rubbish means less land and water pollution and healthier plants, people, and animals. Plus, recycling old products into new ones means we won’t have to mine, cut down forests, or destroy habitats in search of brand-new materials.
Circularity can also boost a country’s economy by supplying entrepreneurs with valuable materials at a lower cost than importing or manufacturing them from scratch. When a government adopts a circular economy, it needs people to collect recyclables, recycle old products, and trade recycled materials for money. New jobs emerge, and different skills become essential.
In this way, circularity can lower unemployment rates and boost skills development.
Changes We Can Make in South Africa
Circularity is not only about recycling and finding better ways to manage waste. It’s also an economic concept that means managing our raw materials better to develop a strong economy that has enough resources to support itself for generations.
Here are some ways we can implement circularity in South Africa by industry:
Mining makes a significant contribution to South Africa’s economy, and we export large volumes of gold, iron ore, coal, diamonds, and platinum every year. However, it creates a lot of waste, including fly ash, waste rock, scrap metal, wastewater, and leftover minerals (tailings).
Making the mining industry more circular could mean reusing and upcycling old equipment or using mining waste to make bricks. It could also mean designing better systems for wastewater treatment and repairing eco-systems once a mine no longer operates.
“Circular agriculture” means using farming by-products as raw materials to grow crops. For example, using animal manure as fertiliser, or turning food waste into renewable energy through bio-digestion.
South Africa allocates 61% of its water supply to farming every year. Switching to vertical farming, which recycles water as the plants grow, can make the industry more sustainable.
We can also achieve circularity in agriculture through precision farming. That means using technology to monitor fields, soil, weather conditions, and more to help farmers use less water and energy. Fruitlook is an example of precision farming technology in South Africa.
South Africa can make its manufacturing sector more circular by designing products that are reusable, recyclable, and easier to repair. This approach will help us reduce waste and keep valuable materials in circulation for longer.
“Remanufacturing” means repairing and re-engineering old equipment, vehicles, and engines to make them new again instead of throwing them away. Remanufacturing, using renewable energy like solar power, and following cleaner production methods all contribute towards a circular economy.
How Do We Implement a Circular Economy?
Establishing a circular economy will take collaboration between the public, businesses, and the government. The first step towards making South Africa more circular is setting up laws that protect the environment and conserve natural resources. The Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries (DFFE) have already got several policies in place, such as:
- The National Development Plan
- South African National Strategy for Sustainable Development
- National Waste Management Strategy
Another strategy for building a circular economy is extended producer responsibility (EPR). That means holding business owners accountable for the waste created by their products when people eventually throw them away. The South African government set EPR laws for the electrical, electronics, lighting, paper, and packaging industries in 2021.
Support Sustainable Businesses That Practice EPR
Although one person alone can’t change the entire economy, we can work together to support businesses that care about the environment and reject those that don’t. eWASA is a producer responsibility organization that helps South African companies reduce waste, save resources, and become more sustainable.