“Waste not, want not”

Think about your latest favorite purchase. It could either be a few bars of chocolate, a new body care product, or a new piece of home furniture. All the packaging and the no-longer-wanted items - where do they go?
In most cases, they eventually get tossed in the landfill, one way or another, sooner or later. Sadly, that’s how our economy has been designed to work. It is not designed for reuse or lifetime use, but rather to send natural resources directly to the landfill. 

So, did you throw anything into the trash bin today?

If you are like most people, you probably did. An average Vietnamese produces around 0,45 - 1,08 kg of waste on a daily basis. This number is even estimated to increase by 10 to 16 percent every year.
With a population of nearly 99 million people, Vietnam generates about 25.5 million tons of waste every year, of which 75 percent ends up in landfills. The same pattern can also be witnessed in the global landscape. In 2021, the world generates 353 million tons of plastic waste alone, of which only 9% is recycled, 19% is destroyed and nearly 50% is buried in qualified landfills.
The linear mindset of a throw-away society, as a direct result of materialism(1) and consumerism(2), is a fundamental contributor to these frightening numbers.
Photos of waste dumping sites across regions in Vietnam (Source: Nhandan.vn, Kenh14.vn & Th.boell.org)
Photos of waste dumping sites across regions in Vietnam (Source: Nhandan.vn, Kenh14.vn & Th.boell.org)

How did the throw-away culture become so dominant in our daily lives?

“Material goods no longer serve just our basic needs for food, housing, health, education and vitality. Indeed, they shape our sense of belonging and identity. The idea of endless growth has been embedded in our emotional and cognitive lives since the Industrial Revolution.” (Harald Welzer)
Vietnam’s transition to a market-driven economy since Doi Moi has created many changes in social ideologies, prompting consumers to embrace new ideals. We can not deny the fact that such transition has brought about enormous socio-economic benefits for the Vietnamese. But the hard truth is, the linearity of the ongoing economic pathways is not anywhere near sustainable.
Vietnam, as a newly industrialized economy, has made its way to the top 20 countries with the largest amount of waste, higher than the world’s average. In the expanding economic hub of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, “consumers are confronted with a world of commodity goods, and rapidly becoming integral to the culture of pleasure-seeking” (Viet Dung Trinh)
Capitalism has imprinted on our minds that the more people spend, the logic goes, the better it is for everybody. Marketers and advertisers have perfected strategies to create new demands and convince consumers to buy things, even when not in need.
On a global scale, prosperity is coming at a “devastating cost” to the natural ecosystems.
We, governments, consumers and businesses, with the deep-rooted linear thinking process made default by ever-more consumerism, are all parts of this linear system that is exhausting the planet and violating the lives of natural ecosystems.
A scene from "Don't Look Up", a Netflix movie atirizing the global response to climate change
A scene from "Don't Look Up", a Netflix movie atirizing the global response to climate change

If the linear lifestyle is so detrimental, then how could we move away from it? Simple enough: circulate it!

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” (Albert Einstein)
Everything that surrounds us has been designed by someone, from tangible things like clothes or buildings, to intangible ones like the way we get our food (EMF). To move away from the throw-away mentality, we need to actively become better designers of our own lifestyles. In other words, we must re-design our thinking and consuming process. To do that, nature is the greatest designer that we can learn from.
Nature has found its way to be around for a few billion years. In fact, nature has already solved numerous challenges facing humans today, with the so-called “circular approach” where everything is interconnected, restorative and regenerative. 
By applying circularity to the economy, we can learn to be thriving and sustainable.
Please watch this animated video for a simplified explanation of what a circular economy is and how it works:

Now the ultimate question remains, what does it take to make a circular economy work?

Let’s start with a simpler question: Will replacing a plastic straw with a paper one help solve the environmental crisis?
The answer is yes, and no, simultaneously.
A few years ago, the idea of paper equivalents felt like we’ve half-way saved the Planet. Unfortunately, that has never been the case. The term “Plastic Straw Syndrome”(3) has since then come to the table to remind us that focusing solely on one sustainability challenge is not only inefficient, but also leads to the detriment of the bigger picture (Circular Online).
For a circular economy to work, we need systems-level change that starts with a fundamental shift away from the linear mindset. But, what eventually makes systems-level change happen? One smaller change upon another, with a holistic vision in line. Collaboration, innovation and transformation are now more important than ever to efficiently circulate materials and products within and between individuals, businesses and economies.
Even though “circular economy” might sound like a big, ‘alien’ terminology to most of us (because it is!), it is crucial to note that you do not have to be an economist to understand its fundamentals and applications. In fact, the term does a splendid job in capturing everyone, everything within that builds up the so-called “economy”.

Everyone has a role to play in building circularity, and so do you.

(1) Materialism: The belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life. Cambridge Dictionary
(2) Consumerism: The idea that increasing the consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal and that a person's wellbeing and happiness depend fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions. Investopedia
(3) Plastic Straw Syndrome: As succinctly put by Professor Peter Hopkinson in an SAP sustainability roundtable last year – often happens when governments, consumers or businesses fixate on one sustainability challenge to the detriment of the wider picture. Circular Online
This article was originally published on the website of the ICM Falk Foundation.