As a child growing up in Chennai, India, I was fascinated by what we called my grandmother’s “magic cupboard”. It was a capacious cupboard, always kept under lock and key, and stored an assortment of things my grandmother deemed precious or useful, bits of string, used gift wrapping paper, carefully smoothed out and folded, storage boxes, shopping bags, brown paper bits left over from covering school books, bits of cloth left over from tailored clothes, buttons, a broken transistor radio, cowrie shells from a childhood game…the list was endless. My grandmother was a firm believer in the principle that most things that people discarded could be fixed, repurposed or salvaged in some fashion. At the time, I thought she was crazy. Why keep old, broken, useless things, when you could buy new ones so easily? And what use could the things she stored ever be to anyone? 

Nothing in her house was ever wasted. She made delicious dishes from the parts of vegetables that others threw away – carrot leaves made a delicious chutney, and vegetable peels were composted to enrich the soil in her vegetable garden, or carefully collected to give the milkman as fodder for his cow. The husk from the coconuts growing in her garden was used to make scrubbers to clean her pots and pans, and lemon peels were soaked in water to make homemade dishwashing agents.

It strikes me now that my grandmother was onto something all those years ago. She was practicing the principles that govern a circular economy. Designing to reduce waste, keeping products in use for as long as possible and regenerating natural systems – she called it common sense and we know them now as the underlying principles of a circular economy.

With growing recognition of the multiple complex and inter-linked crises facing our world – climate change, urbanization, inequality, to name but a few, it is amply clear that our current systems of production and consumption are unsustainable and cannot provide an equitable and prosperous life for all people within planetary boundaries. Circular economy describes one possible ways to radically reform our current systems of production to design an economy that is less wasteful and polluting, that allows for the responsible use of finite resources and that encourages the regeneration of our natural systems. 

Fast forward several years and I am in Bonn in the 8th week of lockdown of the Covid crisis. As the global pandemic wreaks unimaginable havoc on people and economies everywhere, we have all remained within our homes, our lives circumscribed by the attempts to slow the spread of the disease and our forays into the outside world restricted to shopping for basic necessities. It struck me how little I really need to survive within the current context.

Circular economy demands not just a change to our current systems of production but our current systems of consumption as well. It necessitates the interrogation of our attitudes, behaviours and habits as consumers and citizens. It raises questions of ethical consumption and the unequal distributions of access to resources and lifestyles. It shines a spotlight on growing inequality and our increasingly consumerist value systems.

Circularity is by no means a silver bullet but it could certainly provide a route to transforming our systems of production and consumption to achieve a prosperous life for all, as well as a planet that could sustain generations. It could provide a pathway to help us achieve sustainable development for all, the goal of the 2030 Agenda. It could be the “magic cupboard” humanity needs.

In May-June 2020, the UNSSC will run the inaugural edition of a new online course on circular economy, created in partnership with UN Environment. Register for the second edition of this course in November at this link. https://unssc.org/circular-economy-and-2030-agenda/. If you would like more information or could offer resource expertise, please do write to sustainable-development@unssc.org.



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