Circular economy could save $100bn on waste management costs annually

That is the headline findings from the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 (GWMO 2024) report. The new study is the biggest update on global waste generation and the cost of waste and its management since 2018.

UNEP’s report found that municipal solid waste generation is predicted to grow from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050. When combining factors such as pollution, poor health and emissions from poor waste disposal practices, UNEP warns that this rise will cost $361bn, up from a direct cost of $252bn in 2020.

The report emphasises embracing better waste management controls and focusing on prevention as part of a switch to a circular economy could drastically cut costs. UNEP found that better waste municipal waste management alone could limit net annual costs by 2050 to $270.2bn, but that decoupling waste generation from economic growth and promoting waste avoidance could deliver a net gain of $108.5bn annually.

“Waste generation is intrinsically tied to GDP, and many fast-growing economies are struggling under the burden of rapid waste growth.” UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen said.

“By identifying actionable steps to a more resourceful future and emphasising the pivotal role of decision-makers in the public and private sectors to move towards zero waste, this Global Waste Management Outlook can support governments seeking to prevent missed opportunities to create more sustainable societies and to secure a liveable planet for future generations.”

Close-loop state of play

To date, a lot of the benefit felt from the transition away from linear models is being disproportionately shared out across the planet. Research found that 84% of studies into the socio-economic benefits of adopting a circular economy had focused on countries in the Global North.

The research argues that the shift to a circular economy can – and must – contribute to efforts to improve worker protections, alleviate poverty and end discrimination on bases such as gender. Better data collection and analysis, plus joint policy advocacy, will be needed to make this a reality, but these are all areas that need to be considered and integrated into corporate efforts to close the loop.

According to the 2023 Circularity Gap report, just 7.2% of the raw materials used by humanity each year are kept in circulation. The fact that the vast majority of these materials go to waste, the report outlines, is fuelling nature loss and the climate crisis – megatrends that disproportionately impact the poorest nations.

Last year, UNEP found that global plastic pollution rates could be slashed by 80% by 2040, and more than $4.5trn of cost savings reaped in the process.

The findings also mapped out the major policy shifts and market adjustments that would be needed to deliver the overarching aim of the Plastics Treaty – stemming and ultimately ending plastic pollution globally.

The Ellen Macarthur estimates that 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials produced each year is lost through pollution, landfilling, incineration or downcycling. This is equivalent to at least $80bn.

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