IISD 10/16/18
By Nathalie Risse

10 October 2018: During a joint meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Second Committee (Economic and Financial) and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), UN Member States, experts and stakeholders considered ways to leverage the model of a circular economy to advance the SDGs. Participants outlined the need for global agreement on a definition of “circular economy,” and to make the concept appealing to the public and policymakers in order to stimulate action and deliverables.

The joint meeting titled, ‘Circular Economy for the SDGs: from Concept to Practice,’ took place on 10 October 2018, in New York, US. Participants noted that a circular economy can lead to substantial cost saving, increased productivity and environmental benefits, and outlined the need for innovation, global action, making consumers aware of the “true cost” of the products they buy, and for raising awareness about the unstainability of the “linear economic model.” Participants also underlined the importance of changing mindsets, and of partnering with the business community, governments, civil society and other actors in developed and developing countries to drive the changes necessary for transitioning towards a circular economy.

Opening the meeting, ECOSOC President Inga Rhonda King described the current economy as a linear one of “take-make-consume and throw away.” She said a circular economy redefines “what we perceive as waste,” with new business models and product designs in order to “give another life to what we once believed was waste.” King noted that in September 2019, heads of state will gather to discuss innovative solutions and reaffirm their commitment to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda during the ‘SDG Summit,’ the UN High-level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF) held once every four years under the auspices of the UNGA. She called on delegates to ensure that circular economy will be an integral part of these discussions.

Jorge Skinner-Klee, Chair, UNGA Second Committee and Permanent Representative of Guatemala, said by 2050, the global population is expected to increase from seven billion to more than nine billion inhabitants, which should lead to an increase in demand for natural resources of approximately 25%. He stressed that transitioning to a circular economy should be considered imperative, not optional. Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, reported that the world produces more than two billion tons of municipal solid waste each year, and global waste could grow by 70% in the next 30 years due to rapid urbanization and growing populations.

Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the Oceans, speaking by video message, said embedding the principles and practices of the circular economy into consumption and production regimes will be the key transition for achieving the SDGs. Discussing “unconscionable levels” of plastic pollution as a consequence of a linear economy, he called for using plastic that is recyclable and biodegradable, and for ending single-use plastic. He paid homage to the many cities and communities that are taking action in this regard.

Norway supported that remark, noting that every minute, 15 tons of litter enters the ocean, over 80% of which is from land-based sources. Kate Daly, Closed Loop Partners, reported that most clothes are worn an average of only seven times before being discarded, and New York City spends about US$60 million a year sending textiles and apparel to landfill. Daly said that in the US, the transition to a circular economy will be driven by business interests rather than national regulation. She noted the increase in shareholder activism on issues such as single-use plastic, and an increased interest for sustainability issues in areas such as the fashion industry.

Morocco drew attention to its 2016 law prohibiting the production, import, export, marketing and use of plastic bags for packaging. India noted that his government decided to eliminate all single use plastics by 2022, and implementation is under way.

The EU referred to a recent study that estimates that circular economy measures could reduce global emissions by 3.6 billion tons per year by 2030, which, she said, could help make progress on the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Among other initiatives, she indicated that the EU has concluded a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China for close cooperation on the circular economy, and cooperates with South Africa on the issue as well.

Elena Simina Lakatos, founding President, Institute for Research in Circular Economy and Environment “Ernest Lupan” (IRCEM), referred to initiatives undertaken at the European level, including the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, and the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform created as a joint initiative by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee. The online platform seeks to, inter alia, advance the circular economy concept in countries, regional and local governments, civil society and businesses, and includes good practices and knowledge that can be shared globally.

Michael Shank, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA), highlighted a definition of “circular economy” that he said is easy to communicate to the public, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: i) design out waste and pollution; ii) keep products and materials in use; iii) and regenerate natural systems. Sanjeevan Bajaj, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), referred to circular economy as a concept that generates wealth without waste. She presented work carried out by FICCI including circular economy symposiums, knowledge theme and position papers, and capacity building activities. She announced that FICCI will be giving circular economy awards to companies that adopt circular economy models starting in 2019.

Kevin de Cuba, Founder, Circular Economy Platform of the Americas, said a circular economy goes well beyond recycling. He noted the upcoming Circular Economy Forum of the Americas (CEFA) that will take place in Santiago, Chile, from 27-28 November 2018.

Lawrence Chidi Anukam, Director General, National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Nigeria, said that “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) is a way to promote the circular economy, and Nigeria has developed EPR operational guidelines. He said there is growing interest from companies in EPR, which is “a driving force in waste avoidance and effective pollution prevention and reduction.” He said that his country is a member of the African Alliance on Circular Economy launched during the UNFCCC’s 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 23).

Carol Lemmens, Arup, said his company, which designed the Sydney Opera House, is partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to develop circular economy principles that apply to four priority areas: cities, transport, energy and water. He also referred to the report titled, ‘From Principles to Practices: First Steps towards a Circular Built Environment,’ prepared by Arup and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Egypt for the Group of 77 and China (G-77/China) called for stepping up efforts for the full implementation of the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns (10YFP), with developed countries taking lead. China said his country advocates for circular economy, and has been adopting regulations and promoting it since 2008. Referring to the practice of exporting waste to China, he remarked that his country recycles its own waste but does not have the technology or capacity to process the waste of “the whole world.”

The UNGA’s Second Committee began its work on 4 October and held its general debate from 8-10 October. [UNGA Second Committee events] [Concept note] [Event programme] [Draft statement of ECOSOC president] [Meeting webcast] [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]