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The Earth Circle: making environmentalism pay its way | The Economist

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Published on Jan 31, 2017

Making waste a thing of the past, new ideas on the environment are reusing or regenerating raw materials so that they pay dividends for business as well as the planet.

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In one of the poorest areas of the world, a revolutionary project taking waste, the ghost fishing nets chocking the ocean and turning it back into the raw material for new products. It's a new kind of environmental thinking that goes well beyond recycling. It's being called Circular Economy and it just might save the planet.

There are few fish left on the Danajon Bank in the Philippines. Overfishing and pollution have decimated marine life here. Instead, Isoy and his neighbours are catching rubbish. The discarded fishing nets that cover the sea bed. It's part of a project that aims to help the planet and the people who live on it. Called Net-Works, it's a collaboration between the wildlife charity behind London Zoo and Interface, one of the world's largest carpet tile manufacturers.

This is ground zero for new thinking on waste - beyond recycling or charity to convert it into something valuable. Isoy and his wife Christine get around a dollar for every 5 kilos of nets they collect. Once enough nets have been collected by the villagers here they are shipped to the local town where they are flown to Europe to be turned back into raw nylon - and then made into carpet tiles. This is the starting point of the circular economy.

It's taken three years to get to this stage where the project is making money and is self-sustaining. This is the potential strength of the new idea. It is in the company's financial interest to do it.

But making products from waste is just one turn of the circle. Closing the loop would mean all products being reused at the end of their lives. And that's a while other challenge. Those involved in this project say there has to be joined up thinking - They can't do it alone.

It's not only businesses that are trying to make the circular economy a reality. This is Buiksloterham in Amsterdam. Once a thriving port - now a polluted old dockyard close to the centre of the city. An industrial wasteland being reborn as a 21st century laboratory for the circular economy.

Buiksloterham is taking the idea of circular well beyond recycling waste. Nothing gets thrown away - everything goes back into the community. Installing circular technologies costs more up front, but the expectation is that it will save resources and money over the long run.

Rainwater harvesting, renewable energy, recycling; the project looks at every input and every output. Five years after the opening of this unique circular laboratory the lessons learnt are being applied throughout Amsterdam. Even though the laboratory is at an early stage, it is causing a splash. City leaders from around the world are coming here to learn from their experience.

Advocates of the circular economy say that it will become essential when resources start to run out. A problem some countries are already dealing with. Japan has few natural resources of its own but its recycling rate for metals is 98% and less than five percent of waste goes into landfill.

It's illegal to throw out household appliances in Japan. They are collected and brought to the Tokyo Eco-Recycle Centre. Two decades ago, Japan realised it needed to get serious about reuse and recycling. Making this system work needed a full cultural shift driven by government, and backed by changes to the law. Anyone buying an appliance in Japan must pay up front for the cost of recycling it. Because of its lack of resources, Japan accepted that waste should not be wasted, and drew on the collective spirit of the Japanese to do something about it. But subsidies were needed to make the finances add up which shows the challenge of the circular economy.

In most cases, using disposable materials is still cheaper than going circular. Which is why many of the circular economy's pioneers think that a more radical change is required.

Discover the radical thinking and powerful personalities tackling issues of life and death – and everything in between. Global Compass searches for the key to solving some of the world’s biggest and most challenging problems – and reveals how one powerful idea can become the dynamo for change across the globe.

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