They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: “What is beyond your needs.” ~ 2:219

As a teenager, I read that verse and my odd brain decided that this means I need to figure out what my needs really are, so that I know when I should start giving in charity. There have been many benefits to this. For instance, it is quite difficult to trick me into buying something I don’t need, simply because I am always aware of what I really need. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t accumulate stuff. But it does make my transition to circular living more manageable.

Waste, both in the sense of pollution and recycling, was probably the first environmental cause I learned about. Later, almost the entirety of my (first) corporate career was in contaminated land risk management. These all fall under SDG 12. Not only that, barring major surprises, my next corporate career will likely be in the circular economy, which is the very definition of SDG 12.

So, even though SDG 12 isn’t the one I “like” best, you can say that it’s the one I’m most familiar with, both professionally as well as in my personal life choices. This is probably why I have a lot of articles classified under this SDG, and many are not travel-related either.

We didn’t always have a waste problem.

Like most people today, I grew up entirely in a post-industrial world. I don’t know a world before industrialisation. But my grandparents’ generation did. And from my travels to remote communities in the Himalayas, and rural homestays, I know that today’s waste problem is recent. Like, less than a hundred years recent.

Now, I’m not saying that life before industrialisation is better. With the current world population, it’s not possible to provide for everyone without the multiplier of manufacturing and technology. Before it, the problem was not waste, but scarcity. People made things last, because it’s hard to know when you can get new stuff. In fact, when I was a pre-teen, there was a dress of blue Chinese silk that my mother handed down to me. I thought it would be my only silk dress for ever. But ten years later, silk became a common fabric.

It’s not just sheer abundance of stuff made possible by industrial manufacturing. Nor the new materials we made them from, that don’t go back into nature the way the old materials did. It was also another multiplier that came with industrialisation, which is the consumer based economy that needed perpetual growth. And within one century, we have managed to consume the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished.

Circular economy is new, but not that new.

Circular living and a circular economy are actually ideas that have existed from the middle of the 20th century. (And I guess, prior to the Industrial Age, it was the default. In the sense that you’re making things with natural materials anyway, and if you were too wasteful with resources, and tolerated pollution and pestilence, your civilisation simply didn’t survive.)

In my corporate life, I had access to literature that reference circular economy concepts. I’ve also read reports that discuss circular economy in a more modern sense, not just in the physical circularity of the materials flow, but also the necessary changes that we’d need to make in finance and economic models. People have discussed it since the late 20th century. It’s just complicated to do, because of how messy global supply chains are.

But I think the circular economy will come into its own in the 21st century because, for the first time, there will come an entire generation who will understand it. They must, because their survival hinges on it. And making these changes will become easier, when a whole global generation is on the same page.

Circular economy is, and isn’t, about your lifestyle changes.

The UN summary description for this SDG is actually pretty balanced, and appropriate for the actual targets. You’ll find that the majority of the targets are about societal scale changes, like industrial sector level, and supply chains, public policies and corporate responsibility. This is appropriate, because the changes we need to make are structural.

But I also think that of all the SDGs about planetary consequences of development, individual action matters the most for this one. This is because the sustainability problems of this SDG is directly due to consumerism. That’s why consumption is in the title of this SDG. So even though it doesn’t really matter if you refuse a plastic straw every time, or you’re only zero waste by buying pre-loved clothes, when a Kardashian can just take a private jet to get an ice cream, all of it is still part of the generational and societal conversations on what is the consumer culture we want, and is good for us. And that’s structural too.

Secondly, eventually every government has to shift to a circular economy. Even if we can mine space rocks, without circularity we’d just end up with waste space rock material on top of the waste we’re already generating. Our experience trying, allows us to give feedback to government on where we’re willing to change and how, and prepares us for the changes they will make.

Finally, trying solutions as a society is how we create new culture that helps future generations survive. We always have. It’s just that, given the scale and speed of the waste problem, for the first time we have to start the process ahead of the calamity, to avoid the most suffering.