Research : The dawn of a circular economy model in South Africa

A collaborative study by research teams based at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) set out to explore existing levels of circularity in South Africa's economy.

As global populations rise, demand for resources is set to reach dizzying heights yet the available resource supply appears as finite as ever. A circular approach towards the economy aims to supply burgeoning demand via sustainable means. It's a consumption model that seeks to stretch the life of a product to its maximum extent by reusing, repairing and recycling, ultimately eliminating waste from the production chain altogether.

The project “Assessing economywide prospects for a more sustainable circular economy in South Africa” sought to establish a list of materials used in South Africa for the span of a year, coupled with resulting carbon emissions and waste.

Key findings show that the country is primarily export oriented, with a large proportion of exported materials being non-renewable, such iron ore or coal. As countries seek to lessen their ecological footprint by lessening fossil fuel consumption, the onus is on South Africa to move from an export-oriented mindset to one that sees economic promise in the development of one's own nation.

Professor Harro von Blottnitz from UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment expressed it like this: “We want to see new businesses offering the services that the population needs and aren’t getting at the moment.We want those to create decent jobs for all skill levels, and be tied to a stronger domestic economy with lower environmental impacts.”

Redevelopment of local infrastructure (ex.railroads) and using urban planning in order to encourage commuters to walk, cycle and use public transport were also identified within the study as possible ways to lessen carbon emissions.

The research study revealed that South Africa's socio-economic cycling rate, which refers to the ratio between the sum of recycled and reused materials to domestically processed materials, is just under 2 percent while ecological cycling, which refers to biological nutrients designed to re-enter the biosphere, is slightly higher at about 5%. Within a circular economy, both kinds of recycling are crucial.