State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Circularity: A Powerful Tool for Fighting Climate Change

sandra goldmark in front of lamp
Sandra Goldmark is senior assistant dean of interdisciplinary engagement at the Columbia Climate School and director of campus sustainability and climate action at Barnard College.

Sandra Goldmark is used to setting stages for action. A theater designer by training, Goldmark has been doing a lot of bridge-building lately. As the Columbia Climate School’s senior assistant dean of interdisciplinary engagement, she works across disciplines and sectors to promote the idea of creating circular systems as a way to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Goldmark described her approach in detail in her 2020 book, Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet. She prescribes a series of fundamental changes to the way society approaches “stuff,” advocating a shift to a circular economy. Instead of sending products on a linear journey between a factory and a landfill, a circular economy focuses on repairing, refurbishing, reusing, and upcycling in order to get the most out of every product.

Mark Levine headshot
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine will be the featured speaker at the Sept. 20 event, “Leveraging Circularity: Science, Business, and Community.”

On Tuesday, September 20, as part of NYC Climate Week 2022, circularity takes the spotlight. An event hosted by Barnard College and the Columbia Climate School will bring together big names in city government and policy and environmental experts to explore, investigate, and underscore the value of rethinking consumption. Register for the event.

In the Q&A below, Goldmark tells us more about circularity and what she hopes the event will achieve.

What is circularity and why does it matter?

Circularity provides a framework to think about consumption. Circularity means shifting from what we call a linear system to a circular one. In a linear one, we extract materials from the earth, we make objects, we use them, and then basically we throw them away. In a circular system, we extract raw materials and make objects, but we use them for a whole lot longer. We repair them. When we can’t use them anymore, we break them down into component parts and re-manufacture or remake them into new objects.

Circularity matters because it is powerful and can be used at every scale. It’s a way to think about [reducing] waste and it’s a way to think about the front end, what we make and buy. With circular consumption, every resource we extract from the earth is incredibly valuable and stays in use for a long, long time.

Is the idea catching on in a significant way?

We’ve seen over the past few years a steady increase in people’s awareness and active engagement with climate issues. People see extreme weather events unfolding, far and near, as people grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of action. That frustration leads them to ask, how are we going to reduce greenhouse gasses and stave off the very worst consequences of global warming? Circularity is a solution — one of many needed to address climate change — and it’s one that works at every scale. The World Resources Institute has estimated that doubling the global circularity level by 2030 can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 20%.

How will this event during NYC Climate Week 2022 help get more people, communities, and businesses to incorporate the principles of circularity?

The goal of the event for me is to raise awareness about the power of this tool, circularity. This is available to us right now, today — from how we design products to what we choose to buy and whether we compost. It’s something that actually already exists in our communities and in our economy. We don’t have to invent it from scratch and it doesn’t always require a lot of new technology. It’s something we can really leverage right now and lean into to address a lot of problems. We can use it as a waste reduction tool; we can use it as an emissions reduction tool. Circularity can even have benefits to biodiversity because you’re using fewer raw materials so, you’re destroying fewer habitats. It’s a really powerful tool and I think people don’t always realize that it’s there and available to us.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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