The world is now 8.6% circular.

Explore how countries can close the global circularity gap.

“Build” Countries

“Build” countries have a low material footprint per capita. As a result, the impact of their economic activities often falls within the regenerative capacity of the planet. On the downside, however, they are struggling  to meet all basic needs, not least in relation to HDI indicators such as education and healthcare. Natural capital, rather than human capital, is their dominant source of wealth, which means that the focus is on extraction and sale of raw materials, while investment in education and skills is insufficient.

The good news is their potential: as “Build” countries are still building-up their basic infrastructure for public services, hospitals and transport, they have an opportunity to apply circular strategies such as modular, passive and flexible design. In construction they can also prioritise the use of regenerative resources in buildings and avoid, by design, the operational inefficiencies which characterise infrastructure in Shift countries.

The decentralised nature of the informal economy prevalent in Build countries also provides a platform on which to develop distributed professional services that allow welfare to grow, while providing decent health and safety conditions.

Key Recommendations for
Build Countries:

Design circularity
into new stocks
In countries like India, where up to 70% of the buildings needed in 2030 are yet to be built, there is huge scope to benefit from innovative construction techniques such as prefabricated buildings and 3D printing, which can make development fast, cheap and eco-friendly. Plastics can be made into tiles and cement can be recovered from concrete demolition waste.
Empower the
informal economy
Some 240,000 smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia have used text messages to rent tractors through the Hello Tractor scheme. Education can help develop the entrepreneurs who will create new circular businesses and a workforce with the skills to fill them.
Build up a sizeable,
sustainable bio-economy
Waste from agriculture, forestry and fisheries can be recycled and used to feed new industries. A programme in Niger has helped subsistence farmers reclaim degraded land and increase crop production by protecting and managing the growth of trees, benefiting 2.5 million people.

“Grow” Countries

Most "Grow" countries have already experienced a degree of economic growth and industrialisation, broadly expected to continue due to a combination of rising standards of living and population increase. As a result, resource use in these countries is characterised by fast economic growth and associated material consumption, rapid stock build-up and an expanding industrial sector (also responding to demand from Shift countries). 

In part, therefore, sustainable growth is about more efficient use of natural capital — investing earnings from the likes of minerals into infrastructure and education, thereby developing human capital. Such investment results in growth of total wealth. Designing new infrastructure, buildings and consumer goods in a circular manner, simultaneously considering both enhanced durability for lifetime optimisation and end-of-life scenarios, are key strategies for these countries to become more circular. 

Alongside this, professionalising and improving the labour conditions in the informal parts of waste management in these countries also bears potential to reduce the environmental impact of both industrial and consumer waste.

Key Recommendations for
Grow Countries:

Foster smart consumption
This can be done through new technology and design to increase material efficiency and introducing sharing business models. In Brazil, for instance, HP is building a zero-waste factory, promoting take-back schemes, and using reverse logistics to remanufacture, reuse and recycle products.
Design circularity at all levels
Consumer goods should be built to last, easy to maintain, and designed to be disassembled or recycled at end-of-life. Long-term infrastructure being built now must be durable, adaptable and upgradable. China has pioneered eco-industrial parks where the waste of one business becomes the feedstock for another.
Transform the informal economy
In Brazil a mobile phone app is linking residents with informal waste collectors who sell recyclable materials to scrap centres. In Ghana, where up to 10,000 people work in Accra’s Agbogbloshie scrapyard dismantling everything from toasters to aircraft, a programme offers training to become designers and manufacturers so they can get greater value from their work.Waste from agriculture, forestry and fisheries can be recycled and used to feed new industries. A programme in Niger has helped subsistence farmers reclaim degraded land and increase crop production by protecting and managing the growth of trees, benefiting 2.5 million people.
Transform the informal economy
In Brazil a mobile phone app is linking residents with informal waste collectors who sell recyclable materials to scrap centres. In Ghana, where up to 10,000 people work in Accra’s Agbogbloshie scrapyard dismantling everything from toasters to aircraft, a programme offers training to become designers and manufacturers so they can get greater value from their work.Waste from agriculture, forestry and fisheries can be recycled and used to feed new industries. A programme in Niger has helped subsistence farmers reclaim degraded land and increase crop production by protecting and managing the growth of trees, benefiting 2.5 million people.

“Shift” Countries

"Shift" countries maintain the highest proportion of services as part of their GDP. Yet, their material consumption is 10 times greater than that of the Build countries. They also produce high volumes of waste, although what they process in-country themselves is usually managed relatively efficiently. With consumption levels exceeding several planetary boundaries, however, the true impact of Shift countries extends far beyond their national borders, with much of the environmental and social costs incurred elsewhere. 

Ultimately, Shift countries need to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for these impacts, regardless of where they occur. To that end, they can start incentivising the dematerialisation of consumption by aligning their tax regimes with sustainability ambitions. 

One other characteristic of Shift countries is their distinctive demographic: the population tends to be relatively small and ageing; although, when it comes to sustainability matters, most notably and recently climate, it is the younger generation that have adopted a clear position, taken to the streets and made a stand on the global stage. Their activism is an increasingly influential factor in social change.

Key Recommendations for
Shift Countries:

Shift to smart ways of consumption
This includes circular design, extending product lifetimes and using fewer materials. In Holland, Fairphone has developed a modular phone using replaceable, ethically sourced parts. Ownership of goods is being replaced by sharing and service business models on everything from jeans to dishwashers – membership of car sharing schemes is growing globally at 65% a year.
Take responsibility for the impact of imports and exports
Shared standards for health, safety and the environment should be applied throughout the value chain, including waste processing. Innovative schemes use waste as a resource, for example Interface is collecting used fishing nets in the Philippines and using the waste nylon in its carpet tiles.
Drive the renewable energy transition
This means decarbonising ‘Shift’ economies and creating abundant renewable capacity, storage and smart grid systems. A transition to 100% renewable energy in the US would see a net increase 2 million jobs, halve energy costs for consumers and save taxpayers $600 billion in healthcare costs and $3.3 trillion in climate costs, according to Stanford University research.
Global 2020
Janez Potočnik
Former European Commissioner
Environment and Co-chair at the UNEP International Resource Panel
Circular economy is becoming a widely recognised and accepted concept. But to make it real, as the report shows, will request many eff orts and a system change also in our understanding of the circular economy. We need to embrace dematerialisation, rethink ownership concept and move from resource effi ciency to resource sufficiency.
Global 2020
Carolina Schmidt
Minister for the Environment
Governement of Chile
The circular economy is a fundamental means to achieving sustainability and carbon neutrality. Yet to know if we’re getting there, we need to measure circularity. The series of Circularity Gap reports have been illuminating, as they’re showing us the –distressing– tendency of the past years. This third report sparks an alarm for all governments; we need to deploy all the array of policies to really catalyze this transformation.
Global 2020
David B. McGinty
Global Director
PACE
The transition to a global circular economy will continue requiring new data and metrics to enable public and private sector leaders to make the best decisions. This Circular Gap Report is another step forward, providing leaders with data and insights on how to understand national-level circularity and possible ways to cluster, learn from similarly-situated countries, and better understand their individual and collective transitions.