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A nation of wasters: Time to ditch 'take-make-waste'
Most living things operate cyclically. Shouldn’t humans do the same?
Kia ora! Welcome to Future Proof brought to you by Electric Kiwi.
We need to start “spiralling” our linear economy into something more circular.
We’re a nation of wasters in New Zealand, with around 740kg of rubbish sent to landfill per person every year. That puts us in the top 10 wasters in the world, according to a 2018 analysis. Underlying these embarrassing stats is our fundamentally linear economy: we take stuff, we use it to make more stuff, and then we throw the stuff away. But on a planet with finite stuff, we can’t keep doing this indefinitely. “We are living as if we have one and a half planets,” said Florian Graichen, speaking at a Scion symposium earlier this year. So what’s the solution? Not wasting so much stuff is a good first step, but scientists and policymakers are particularly keen on rolling up the economy and making it circular. A circular economy. Or even better: a circular bioeconomy.
What on earth is a circular bioeconomy?
It’s a framework that relies on renewable resources (like wood) instead of fossil fuels, with all the stuff made from those resources reused as much as possible, and then recycled or regenerated at the end of its useful life. Newsroom columnist Rod Oram describes it like this: “For me, the circular economy means that everything I borrowed from nature for my life and wellbeing, I return to nature.” The easiest example I can think of is food: we grow it, eat it, and compost the waste to enrich the next crop. It’s a circle. The circular economy concept is “naturally aligned” to “regenerative and symbiotic concepts that Māori have,” said Te Kapunga Dewes at the Scion symposium. The CEO of Whenua Oho is “horrendously excited” about the idea.
How can going circular help us tackle climate change?
There are a couple of key ways that a circular economy can help us reduce carbon emissions. First, it emphasises renewable resources – not fossil fuels. Second, it focuses on keeping stuff in use, meaning we’re putting the brakes on rampant production and not using so much energy. At the moment, producing and consuming all our stuff contributes about half of all global emissions. But it’s not just a climate change tool: it’s about fundamentally living within the physical limits of our planet. Graichen says that circular means going beyond simple economic measures: “I can easily drive up GDP if I exploit. But that’s not good enough anymore.”
Where are we at?
The global economy is only around 7.2% circular at the moment, which means we need to spiral fast. New Zealand’s emissions reduction plan envisions a thriving circular economy for New Zealand by 2050, but the government’s pathway from straight to curvy is unclear. Nonetheless, we’re seeing glimmers of circularity across different sectors: like turning TetraPak into building materials, or Scion’s research into using forestry (and forestry waste) into products like bioplastics and leather shoes. Even food rescue is an example of circularity. We may not be at doughnut levels of circular yet, but there’s a hint of curve – a croissant economy. And that sounds pretty tasty to me.
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Consumer NZ issues warnings over greenwashing
Beware empty claims of “ocean plastic” and “planet conscious”, say Consumer NZ, who investigated the green credentials of nine supermarket items available on shelves here in Aotearoa. All nine items – including chippies and teabags – featured claims that were “unsubstantiated” or “misleading”. Meanwhile, an international report on greenwashing in the food sector calls out Fonterra’s Simply Milk product for its carbon zero claims, which rely entirely on offsetting. Authors of the report, the Changing Markets Foundation, have created this neat interactive website where you can see “what comes out in the wash” for a range of big brands. And Stuff’s “Trash Queen” Alex Kirkham has some tips for avoiding greenwashing in beauty products.
Climate mitigation is still important – even for lil ol’ NZ
The Front Page podcast from the NZ Herald tackles a question that’s been bubbling up recently: how should New Zealand balance climate adaptation and mitigation? (If you need a refresher on the difference, this explainer from Anna Rawhiti-Connell is a good one to bookmark.) Cue the Old El Paso “Why don’t we have both?” girl. Some voices are calling for an adaptation-only approach, saying that New Zealand is too small to make a difference when it comes to actual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate activists have labelled this “the new climate denial”. Hannah Ritchie, lead researcher at Our World in Data, breaks down the data (and arguments) for why countries with so-called “negligible” emissions should still reduce emissions.
The shady history of carbon footprints
If you’re concerned about climate change, you’ve probably used an online carbon footprint calculator at some point – a tool to estimate your personal emissions profile. But did you know that the idea of a carbon calculator was popularised by Big Oil? In the early 00s, BP launched a campaign centred on carbon calculators, shifting the blame for global heating from big corporations to the individual. Of course, the shady tactics of fossil fools don’t mean we get to just sit on our butts and hope for the best: “complacent optimism” is just as bad as pessimism when it comes to climate action. Aim for “changeable optimism” instead, this Vox article argues.
A message from Spinoff editor Madeleine Chapman.
You're reading this because you value the work The Spinoff does in telling the stories of our people in our voices. As we head further into an already eventful 2023, we have a big job ahead of us. Covering the stories that matter to you is no small job. We’re a fiercely independent media company in Aotearoa but that also means we’re small and I think sometimes people forget how small our team is. I'm asking you to consider deepening your commitment to The Spinoff and the work we do by becoming a Spinoff Member. If you’re already a member, thank you for your support and advocacy - it's what keeps us going.
Got opinions on planting natives vs exotic ornamentals in your garden? This researcher wants to hear your thoughts in a quick, anonymous survey
The Climate Commission would like to know why the government rejected its advice, please
If you enjoyed the recent Future Proof on nature-inspired design, check out this new iridescent material that gets cooler in sunlight
“Gorsebusters 3” volunteers converge on the remote Ōkārito Lagoon to remove invasive gorse – over the last two seasons, they dealt to 50,000 gorse plants and picked up 600 litres of rubbish
EVs may not need lithium batteries in future, Bloomberg (paywalled) reports, as the hype around sodium-ion cells grows. These cheaper (but currently less energy-dense) batteries could even be made from discarded crab shells
Happy birthday to Forest & Bird! The organisation is celebrating 100 years this month
What is carbon capture and how does it work? The New York Times has the deets with this neat explainer (gift link)
Activists are taking legal action against a proposed gold mine under Coromandel forest, home to the critically endangered Archey’s frog
To finish, please enjoy this friendly Sandager’s wrasse I met at the Poor Knights marine reserve last week. I try to make Future Proof a space for hope and active optimism, but sometimes the bad news I wade through in order to find the gems can be taxing. Just this week I’ve read about starving snapper in the Hauraki Gulf, a devastated ecosystem off the Taranaki coast, and microplastics in Wellington’s sponges. So it was lovely to immerse myself in a vibrant corner of the ocean, and “experience that joy of regeneration and hope,” to use the words of Sue Neureuter from an Our Changing World episode on the Noises Islands.
Have a fantastic week,
Got some feedback about Future Proof or topics you’d like covered? Get in touch with me at email@example.com