How the Circular Economy Can Help Realize the Sustainable Development Goals

The circular economy, a model for eliminating waste and maximizing the value of resources, has the potential to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), writes Patrick Schröder.

Patrick Schröder, 2 November 2020

Workers at the Binan City Materials and Recovery Facility (MRF) monitor the brick making process from collected volcanic ash. (Photo by MARIA TAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The circular economy is a holistic approach which cuts across a range of sectors including agriculture, energy, climate change, water and sanitation. Indeed, utilizing circular economy practices across these areas, combined with social justice considerations, provides a unique framework for achieving the SDGs.

SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Circular economy practices such as reduce, redesign, reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling are directly aligned with achieving SDG 12 (Sustainable Production and Consumption) by employing new technologies and business models, reducing the amount of unsustainable products that is produced and bought, sharing and repairing, designing out waste and safely managing toxic substances. As a result, resource efficiency can be improved and pressure reduced on the natural environment.

But the circular economy can help to achieve many other SDG targets too. In fact, by realising SDG 12, progress on climate mitigation and environmental goals such as SDG 14 (Life Below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land) can be achieved too.

SDG 2: Zero Hunger

The circular economy includes regenerative agricultural practices that restore soils and new innovations such as hydroponic gardening, which together with reducing the amount of food we waste and sustainable diets are key to reducing malnutrition and eliminating hunger.

SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing

Low-carbon ciruclar mobility solutions to cut urban air pollution and reduce toxic waste and effluents from industrial activity can contribute to the good health and well-being of communities.

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Many circular economy solutions exist for the water and sanitation sector that can enable safe drinking water and sanitation services for millions of people currently without access.

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

New circular business models based on digital solutions, additive manufacturing such as 3D printing and new logistics systems to close resource loops, are key elements for resilient and sustainable economies.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Improving housing conditions in informal settlements through affordable modular building solutions and promoting low-carbon transport solutions can make cities and communities better places to live.

Crucially, an inclusive and socially just circular economy that addresses poor working conditions in the waste sector can also contribute to additional SDGs such as SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). In addition, by actively providing new employment opportunities for women and recognizing the important work of informal sector workers within the circular economy, progress can also be made on SDG 5 (Gender Equality) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities).

Ultimately, achieving all of the SDGs will be be necessary to eliminate poverty and improve people’s standards of living (SDG 1: No Poverty). The circular economy, if applied across all sectors and with an emphasis on a just transition, has a unique opportunity to contribute to achieving a significant number of SDG targets, thereby making life better for people and the planet.