Half of the materials consumed globally are minerals © SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Half of the materials consumed globally are minerals © SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

World consumes 100bn tonnes of materials a year

22 January 2020

Global consumption of materials has reached an all-time high of more than 100bn tonnes per year but the amount being reused and recycled has fallen, a report has warned. 

The report, by think tank Circle Economy, said 100.6bn tonnes of materials were used in 2017 – the latest figures available – but just 8.6% was recycled, down on 9.1% in 2015. However, consumption of resources increased by 8% over the period.

Circle Economy said a reliance on extracting virgin materials to build up a global stock of housing, infrastructure and heavy machinery, along with a lack of end-of-life processing and recycling, were to blame.

“These trends are embedded deep within the ‘take-make-waste’ tradition of the linear economy – the problems are hardwired. As such, the outlook to close the circularity gap looks bleak under the dead hand of business as usual. We desperately need transformative and correctional solutions; change is a must,” the report said. 

Half of the materials consumed were minerals, including sand, clay and stone. Fossil fuels accounted for 15% and metal ores made up 10%. The remainder were plants and trees.

While nearly a third of the materials, used for buildings and vehicles, remain in use after a year, 15% are emitted into the atmosphere and almost a quarter are discarded into the environment. A third of the materials go to landfills and mining spoil heaps.

However, the report found countries are beginning to engage with the circular agenda. European nations such as France, Germany and Spain have all launched circular economy roadmaps. Last year, Colombia launched its National Circular Economy Strategy, the first of its kind in Latin America. 

“Countries have the mandate to develop national legislation and create the enabling environment and incentives which drive the transition. Alongside this, as lead investors in infrastructure, government buildings and assets, their procurement strategy can kick-start circularity at scale,” it said.

Harald Friedl, chief executive of Circle Economy, said: “We risk global disaster if we continue to treat the world’s resources as if they are limitless.

“Governments must urgently adopt circular economy solutions if we want to achieve a high quality of life for close to 10 billion people by mid-century without destabilising critical planetary processes.”

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s head of sustainability, Bea Perez, told the BBC the firm would not ditch plastic bottles as consumers still want them.

The drinks giant produces about 3m tonnes of plastic packaging a year but has pledged to use at least 50% recycled material by 2030. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Perez said the firm recognised it now had to be "part of the solution".

She added the firm could not ditch plastic outright as this could alienate customers and hit sales, while using aluminium and glass packaging could push up Coca-Cola’s carbon footprint.

"Business won't be in business if we don't accommodate consumers," she said.

"So as we change our bottling infrastructure, move into recycling and innovate, we also have to show the consumer what the opportunities are. They will change with us."

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