At a family reunion in August, I paid a quick tribute to my mother on her 90th birthday. As the guests sipped their coffee in the warm summer air, I checked off a dozen or so pieces of wisdom she’s passed down to her family over the decades. One insight I attributed to her was an aversion to waste. In our household, items like clothes and toys would have several lives before being thrown away, and leftovers would be turned into tomorrow’s lunch. In other words, my mother was an early advocate for the circular economy, where materials and products go through multiple iterations and waste from one process is recycled and becomes input to another.

For people of her generation, these are common values. But younger generations have largely moved away from these ideas, choosing instead to produce and consume more and more. Some of the waste is recycled, but that only goes so far to address the problem that the planet has limited resources to offer.

The finite nature of this supply distinguishes materials from energy. There is no doubt that in the future we can capture more solar energy and even build nuclear fusion reactors to end the energy shortage forever. But for material resources, no such technology is on the horizon.

This is what makes the research reported in this Outlook so important. As the world moves to put its economies on a sustainable footing, this Outlook looks at the advances and barriers to the sustainable use and reuse of plastics; electronic devices such as mobile phones; building material; and clothing and other textiles. It also examines the transition from biofuels to a greener form that encourages less soil-depleting and carbon-generating agriculture, and the urgent need to become better stewards of the Earth’s water resources. Two researchers also debate whether plastics recycling is central to advancing the circular economy or is a counterproductive distraction from the need for more fundamental change.

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