The way the economy works now is fundamentally flawed, said experts, and the world has to change it radically from a linear to a circular model to ensure long-term sustainability. In a linear economy, natural resources are exploited by humans in a one-way path that ends at the landfill. In the circular model, no waste is produced and everything is recycled or re-used.
Switching economic models was discussed by industry experts in a panel discussion organised by City Developments Limited on Wednesday at the CleanEnviro Summit at Marina Bay Sands (MBS).
Indeed, Dr Janez Potocnik, co-chair of the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme, said: "In essence, we have no real viable alternative."
Mr Dalson Chung, managing director of the CleanEnviro Summit, said that, in Singapore, urgent action has to be taken to manage the volume of waste. More than 7.6 million tonnes of it were generated last year.
He said: "The current local pattern of consumption and production is not sustainable.
"If we cannot find a way to reduce waste, then we have to build one incineration plant every five years, and one Semakau landfill every 30 years."
He added that the circular economy was an innovative concept that needed careful study before implementation.
Meanwhile, Mr Ynse de Boer, managing director of Accenture Strategy and Sustainability, said that the circular economy, as a guiding principle, would allow Singapore's economy to grow without the excessive use of natural resources. "There are world-class examples of the concept of recovery and recycling where Singapore clearly leads the way globally," he said, referring to the myriad ways in which Singapore's limited resources are reused and recycled by local firms.
The circular economy thinking has indeed been embraced by several local establishments in their day-to-day operations, one of them being MBS.
Mr Kevin Teng, the executive director for sustainability at MBS, said: "In addition to energy, water and resource conservation projects, we have in place a waste management strategy which includes the use of five food digesters to divert food waste."
These food waste digesters harvest the by-products of food waste for further use instead of just sending food waste to landfills.
Food digestion machines - in which micro-organisms convert waste into water and fertiliser - are also being used in markets in Ang Mo Kio and Tiong Bahru as part of a National Environment Agency on-site food waste recycling pilot.
While such initiatives are on the rise here, businesses can do even more.
Ms Susan Chong, chief executive of local packaging company Greenpac, said that businesses afraid of incurring high costs in their effort to go green could actually achieve savings as a result of applying circular economic thinking to their day-to-day business practices.
She said: "For a shipping business, we use pine, a sustainable resource, to replace mixed hardwood in shipping pallets.
"As a result, we reduced the weight of the pallets from 25kg to 15kg, resulting in actual savings of US$40 (S$54) to US$50 per shipment."
She added: "There's a perception that green costs more but, during the design stage, when you look at the packaging design and use less material, you produce less waste overall."
Mr Chung said that while Singapore has been balancing economic development and environmental sustainability, implementing the circular economy as an overall guiding principle would take time.
He said: "The circular economy can be more viable than the linear economy of 'Take, Make and Dispose', but the Government has to study it in more detail.
"Corporations need to see that they can help in environmental sustainability while also helping with the bottom line."
Mr Peter Lacy, global managing director of Accenture Strategy and Sustainability, said that, in the end, the new way of thinking in business is "about delivering an economy that can thrive, but also deliver enough forever, for all."