Davos 2019: Circular economy opportunities and everything else you may have missed

Over the past few days, sustainability professionals have been bombarded with reports and announcements as more than 3,000 business leaders, policymakers, thought leaders and Matt Damon gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF). This round-up highlights the key talking points that you need to know.

Its that time of year again when the Swiss skiing town of Davos is transformed into a bustling hub for global sustainability leaders, as green campaigners, corporate board members and politicians gather to co-create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing societal and environmental issues at WEF.

This year’s event, which began on Monday (22 January) and concluded on Thursday (24 January), bore the theme ‘Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a new architecture in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  

You’d, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that technologies and other innovations set to help businesses, nations and cities become low-carbon and resource-efficient would have taken centre-stage. In reality, it was the circular economy that was the hot topic of many key discussions.

In practice, the circular economy seeks to replace traditional linear ‘take, make, dispose’ models of production and consumption and replace them with frameworks in which all waste streams are reframed as resource sources.

But reports from Davos found that just 9% of the global economy is considered circular – meaning that less than 10% of the 92.8 billion tonnes of material extracted for use is reused annually – the phrase is currently more of a concept than a large-scale reality.

With key resource efficiency challenges such as plastic packaging, fast-fashion and food waste all becoming mainstream global issues, several of the discussions at this year’s WEF sought to change that trend and transform circular economy visions into reality.

Here, edie rounds up some of the circular economy success stories from the summit and details other key sessions you may have missed.

Day one

Delegates told circularity is ‘essential’ to Paris Agreement progress

On Monday morning, non-profit Circle Economy kicked the summit off by launching its annual Circularity Gap report, mapping the world’s resource efficiency progress to date against global climate goals.

The report outlined the urgent need for nations to “wake up to the potential” of the circular economy in order to push the world towards the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious 1.5C pathway, stating that such a trajectory will “only be possible” in a closed-loop system.

These findings come shortly after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark report on global warming revealed, for the first time, the stark differences between a 1.5C world and a 2C one.

SC Johnson bolsters its sustainable packaging commitments

After joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative last October, consumer goods giant SC Johnson used WEF as a springboard to announce a new collaboration with the NGO, which will focus on developing and scaling-up closed-loop solutions to the global plastics pollution problem.

Specifically, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will offer its best practice advice to SC Johnson and connect the company to its nine other Global Partner corporates, including Nike, Unilever, Google and H&M, while SC Johnson will invest in research, development and trials of new products and materials.

“Plastic pollution is an enormous problem, and it is going to take businesses, governments, consumers and civil society working together to solve it,” SC Johnson’s chairman and chief executive H Fisk Johnson said.

Matt Damon drums up support for water stewardship 

Actor and philanthropist Matt Damon took to the stage on Monday to urge other investors and celebrities to funnel money into projects championing water stewardship and sanitation in developing nations. 

He spoke at length about the progress of charity Water.org, which he co-founded in 2009, confirming that its initiatives have provided more than 16 million people throughout India, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines with access to safe water and sanitation to date. 

Projects to reach these communities were facilitated by $60m (£46m) of investment into the charity’s WaterEquity loan, which was launched in 2017. 

Sustainable transport under scrutiny 

On a less positive note, experts predicted on Monday that 1,150 private jets would be flying to and from Switzerland during the week, carrying Davos attendees. 

Analysis by the Air Charter Service, which last year recorded an 11% increase in private flights to the summit, found that a record number of private flights were made into Switzerland for the conference. The WEF disputed its findings, arguing that it had taken extra measures to increase the use of public transport and shared flights this year. 

Day two

Artificial Intelligence is touted as a green technology

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a branch of computer science that utilises intelligent machines to work and react like humans – is increasingly being used to transform efficiency processes and deliver savings across key environmental footprints, with Google increasingly touting its potential applications across environmental science, healthcare and wildlife conservation.

On Tuesday (23 January), the financial and environmental benefits of widespread AI adoption were outlined in a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google, which claimed the technology could unlock almost £170bn in value annually for the food and consumer electronics industries alone by designing out waste by 2030.

This figure is broken down in the report to up to $127bn (£98bn) a year in 2030 for food, and $90bn (£69.5bn) for consumer electronics.

David Attenborough takes centre stage

In one of the most-discussed sessions of the summit, The Duke of Cambridge Prince William and Sir David Attenborough convened to discuss the current state of environmental conservation, and how human activity has changed the natural world since Attenborough began his career in the 1950s.

The naturalist gave world leaders a stark warning: “The future of the natural world is in our hands, so if we wreck it, we wreck ourselves.”

“The natural world, in the 1950s, seemed like an unexplored one,” he said. “These were the days before insecticide, and when the human population was only a third of the size it is today. You really got a feeling of what it was to be in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is no more.”

Day three

Dozens of corporates team up to offer ‘zero-waste’ refill service

After China’s announcement last January that it would stop accepting 24 types of plastic waste imports and several exposes into the state of the UK’s plastic recycling industry, refill and reuse business models are experiencing something of a resurgence at the moment.

But this business model could soon become much more common, after a group of 24 big-name brands announced at WEF that they had designed hundreds of reusable versions of their packaging and products to launch a refill service. Under the scheme, which is called Loop and was founded by recycling firm TerraCycle, businesses will provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging.

Innovative products and packaging designed for Loop include double-walled aluminium ice cream tubs from Haagen Daas, metal stick deodorant holders from AXE and P&G’s stainless-steel toothbrushes with detachable, fully recyclable heads.

The scheme is set to go live in New York City and Paris in March, with a UK version due to launch by the end of the year.

UN bodies forge new partnership to tackle e-waste

As the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution continue to shape society, our reliance on digital technology is contributing to an increasing e-waste mountain, with  44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste having been generated in 2016.

And although most e-waste contains several valuable, recyclable components and raw materials, only one-fifth of e-waste ever produced has been documented as recycled, according to the UN University.

In a drive to close the loop on this waste stream, seven UN bodies forged a partnership aimed at supporting nations, NGOs and businesses across the world to develop and scale-up e-waste collection schemes on Thursday.

The coalition of organisations – which includes the UN’s Environment Programme, the Industrial Development Organization, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – claim that failing to create a circular economy for electronics could cost the global economy $62.5bn (£47.9bn) per year by 2020.

They are also calling on businesses, local authorities and other large-scale organisations to use technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help ‘dematerialise’ their operations and business models.

Ellen MacArthur calls for food sector ‘revolution’

The global food industry is estimated to account for a quarter of global carbon emissions and is commonly cited as a key contributor to issues such as large-scale deforestation, fires and human rights abuses in developing nations. Indeed, WWF recently released research concluding that 30% of the world’s environmental sustainability challenges could be solved by changes in the agri-food sector.

With this in mind, and given that one-third of food produced for human consumption is currently wasted, Dame Ellen MacArthur took to the WEF stage on Thursday to call for a circular food “revolution”. She told delegates that for every dollar that is spent on food, Governments and charities spend two dollars compensating for the negative effects these products have on health, the environment and the economy. 

MacArthur additionally highlighted the business benefits of closed-loop food systems to delegates, unveiling research concluding that the global economy would be up to $2.7trn better off if all the world’s food systems products and by-products were either eaten, composted or “otherwise valorised”

Sarah George

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