A Sustainable Blue Economy: Circularity and Ocean Resources

Maximizing Resource Efficiency for Sustainable Growth: Exploring the Blue Economy-Circular Economy Nexus in the 21st Century

By Ana Yong

See Also: Circular Blue Economy: Current Practices and Future Plans

Definitions of the Circular Economy and the Blue Economy

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a circular economy consists of “markets that give incentives to reusing products, rather than scrapping them and then extracting new resources”. In other words, the products of today become the supplies for tomorrow.

Circular Economy Benefits
Source: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

UNCTAD’s collaborative partner in circularity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), announced that the circular economy is founded on 3 values, guided by design:

  • i. Eliminate waste and pollution,
  • ii. Circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and
  • iii. Regenerate nature.

To appreciate the concept better, click here for an updated video by EMF or watch it below:

The World Bank defines the blue economy as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health” which encompasses the following topics:

  • i. Renewable Energy,
  • ii. Fisheries,
  • iii. Maritime Transport,
  • iv. Tourism,
  • v. Climate Change, and
  • vi. Waste Management.
Blue Economy infographic
Source: The World Bank

The Blue Economy is also mentioned in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (UN SDG 14) which refers to the sustainable use of the oceans.

A Sustainable Blue Economy: UNSDG 14, Life Below Water
Source: United Nations

Interview with Christina De La Rocha

To better appreciate the effects of the blue and circular economies on sustainability, I have the pleasure of presenting an interview with Christina De La Rocha. She is not only a fellow contributor for Unsustainable Magazine but has been trained as an Oceanographer/Earth Scientist. Her work experiences include examing the links between the Earth’s and the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles and climate. And she has graciously provided us with her take on the Blue and Circular economies.

AY: Please explain how blue and circular economies are related to each other.

CDLR: This depends largely on how you define the blue economy.  If you’re just talking about our economic activities that involve or are related to the oceans and the coasts, then the blue and circular economies don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.  But if you mean a sustainable blue economy–which, like a circular economy, is more an idea than reality at this point–then what they have in common is that they both aim to be sustainable.

That means they shouldn’t harvest, degrade, pollute, or destroy more of the natural world than they regenerate or recover every year.  Supporting biodiversity would also be important to both economies.  But it’s good not to forget that the shared goals of these economies include economic growth and providing livelihoods for people.

AY: How do you think these economies can be implemented in a way that benefits both the environment and the economy?

CDLR: Carefully, honestly, multi-laterally/internationally, cooperatively, and based on scientific studies and thorough monitoring. 

I’m skeptical that we’ll ever manage it.  It takes a lot of time, money, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, equipment, technology, and work to monitor ecosystems and fisheries, to make sure we’re not damaging them. And there’s a lot of incentive for people, firms, and countries to extract as much as possible as quickly as possible from the Earth in order to be the person, firm, or country who makes the most money. 

As a result, until a marine ecosystem or a fishery actually collapses, it’s hard for us to see when we’ve taken out more than that ecosystem can maintain.  And even then, we have a history of keeping on doing our damage, refusing to notice and/or acknowledge the devastation we’re causing, even if we’re working on destroying the resource we depend on for our survival.  It’s so easy to do this!  We’re all guilty of it, even if we’re “just” consumers.  And it seems like there will always be people who will want to keep extracting resources until there is nothing left at all.

So, yes, there will always be people who are greedy, people who cheat, people who are willfully ignorant of consequences, and people who just don’t care about the environment, and those of us who are happy to keep doing what we do and buying what we buy, without connecting it to the harm it causes.

There will also probably always be people who are desperately trying to feed themselves and their families, even if it involves fishing a species toward extinction–and who could really blame them, in that circumstance?  Those are a lot of interests competing against, for instance, the interests of the plankton, fish, marine ecosystems, or the life living on and within the seafloor.  Until we find a “cure” for these things, I think attaining sustainable economies, either blue or circular, is going to be a difficult battle.

AY: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the implementation of circular and blue economies, and how can we address them?

CDLR: As I alluded to in the previous answer, I think our own natures are the biggest challenge to creating sustainable economies.  It requires such a cultural shift! 

Maybe there’s another way to do it, but it feels like everyone would need to recognize that we’re over-exploiting natural resources, we’d have to collectively agree to stop over-exploiting natural resources, and we’d have to figure out what the sustainable limits are and then agree to those limits, abide by those limits, have procedures for making sure everyone else abides by those limits, too, and set up mechanisms to punish people, firms, and countries who cheat or otherwise fail to abide by the limits. 

None of this is particularly news.  And maybe there’s hope.  The human race wouldn’t be where it is today if it couldn’t manage to organize itself, set standards, and take action to solve problems like these.  That’s why we have scientists, committees, governments, lawmakers, judges, law enforcement officers, ambassadors, negotiators, and inter-governmental organizations.  But people and businesses don’t like to be held back from feeding their families or making money, even if it means running a resource into exhaustion.  It’s an age old battle, probably.

AY: How have your training and work experiences influenced your approach in promoting circular and blue economies?

CDLR: As a biogeochemist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about fluxes and reservoirs and it’s amazing how much of life works this way.  In the simplest terms, when the amount of material leaving a reservoir over a certain period of time (i.e., the flux out) exceeds the amount of material entering that reservoir over the same certain period of time (i.e., the flux in), then the amount of material held in the reservoir decreases. 

That’s true of your weight and your bank account, as well of as the amount of fish in the ocean or the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There doesn’t even need to be a big imbalance between the in and the out; if even a small imbalance is sustained for long enough, then you starve to death, go broke, have your fisheries crash, or find yourself in the midst of global cooling (hah–that is not exactly our problem right now, but you get what I mean).

Seeing almost everything as a system that works this way frees you up to look at the processes and factors that have an effect on the fluxes.  Why aren’t you eating enough?  Why aren’t you getting paid enough?  Why aren’t the fish reproducing fast enough to replace what we’re hauling out in nets?  Or, to look at the opposite imbalance (i.e., flux in exceeds flux out), since that’s what’s happening now: why are carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increasing so rapidly?

The more you look at a system and try to answer questions like that, the more you see how complex and full of unintended consequences even a simple system can be.

I don’t know if I spend time promoting circular and blue economies, but with this sort of training and work experience, I definitely don’t believe that unlimited economic growth is either possible or a wise goal.  I can see that, like all reservoirs, economies only grow when you add to the flux of stuff going in, be it energy, resources, money, or manpower.  In the real world, continuous economic growth butts heads against physical limits all the time and doesn’t always break through them.

AY: What role do you see for governments, businesses, and individuals in promoting the transition to circular and blue economies?

CDLR: Governments, business, and individuals all have critical roles if we want to shift over to circular and sustainable blue economies. 

The job of the governments is to decide on policy–based on the best science, one hopes–codify it into law, negotiate it as needed with other governments, monitor situations to make sure everyone is complying, and enforce the outcome fairly so that businesses, consumers, and anyone else affected have a healthy, just, and level playing field.  Its job is also to create and care for the infrastructure–like roads and harbors–that we need to function as a society. 

The job of business is to provide goods and services–especially the food we eat–create jobs, and, along with government, spur and fund innovation and research. It also has a role in building and maintaining infrastructure.

Individuals are part of this at every level.  They’re the consumers, the scientists, the politicians, the shipping magnates, the lawyers and judges, the customs officers, the educators, the community members, and the people working in the mining firms, the chemical firms, and on fishing boats.  We can act alone or as parts of teams, but, ultimately, it is people who are doing all of the thinking and action and people who have to decide whether or not they think it’s important to have sustainable economies, instead of a race to the bottom, like not-very-many-holds-barred capitalism.

AY: Looking to the future, what do you see as the most promising opportunities for advancing circular and blue economies?

CDLR: I feel like humanity is on the cusp of a revolution right now. 

We’re either going to live more sustainably –by going through the green energy revolution, setting aside massive swaths of the planet (on land and in the ocean) for nature, and cutting down on our over-use of the planet’s biological and mineral resources and more justly –by redistributing wealth more equally, tackling racism, sexism, and similar hatreds and injustices, and setting up societies that support as many people as possible to live secure and satisfying lives.

And we’re going to do this in time to avoid the worst consequences of severe global warming (and the climate change related to that), or we’re going to end up living in a world that’s even more dystopian than it is in places now. Full of poverty, but also the super, mega rich, violence, war, immense waves of migration, starvation, continued mass incarceration, and so much suffering.  Not to mention environmental devastation.

What I see as promising is that, even as there are people who are seeing this and freaking out and trying to go backwards, pushing us back toward totalitarianism, hatred, rage, patriarchy, and individualism, there are tons of people who are waking up to the scale of the challenge and taking it on to avoid a catastrophic future, full of destruction and misery. 

I’d like to see the kind of world this second group of people can build.  I think we should all try to be an active member of this second group of people.

AY: What advice do you have for anyone who is interested in these issues?

CDLR: Stay hopeful.  Work hard.  Be kind.  Do your research carefully.  (There’s a lot of misinformation and outright lies out there.) Get involved with groups who seem to be working actively on making the world a better, more sustainable place for as many people and for as many different kinds of people as possible, and for the Earth, its oceans, its ecosystems, and its non-human inhabitants.

Small version of the Earth crashing into our ocean
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Value of the Blue Economy

The Commonwealth states that the blue economy “is an emerging concept that encourages sustainable exploitation, innovation and stewardship of our ocean and its life-giving ‘blue’ resources” and has appraised the global maritime economy to be worth USD 1.5 trillion a year (7th largest global economy).

Not only does it harness monetary opportunities, but it also safeguards and promotes unquantifiable ‘blue’ reserves like long-established traditions, carbon segregation and coastline resilience to help underserved nations alleviate the negative impact of hardship and global warming.

The value of the blue economy is shown below:

80% of global trade carried by sea, 250 million jobs worldwide are linked to fisheries, 35% of crude oil production will come from offshore fields by 2025, 50% of fish for human consumption is provided by aquaculture

Source: The Commonwealth

Examples of the Blue Economy and Initiatives to support it

1. Blue Finance

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has created a Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Initiative to collaborate with the financial community to offer direction and structure to bring about funding, underwriting and financial lending undertakings are consistent with UN SDG 14: Life below water which allows credit organizations to restore marine opulence, biodiversity and ocean health. Click here to find out more about the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles.

Refer to the infographic below for the founding members of the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles.

UN, European Commission, WWF, World resources institute, European investment bank
Source: United Nations Environment Programme

A social enterprise called Blue Finance which manages a coalition of Marine Protected Areas for various governments, is rejuvenating 1,000,000 hectares (ha) of ecologically diverse coral reefs, safeguarding 40 vulnerable species and enhancing the incomes of more than 20,000 seaside community members.

Its presence is seen in Belize, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Philippines, and Zanzibar. Services include providing sufficient start-up and preliminary financial resources for the creation of supportable Marine Protected Areas; participating in advanced collaborative management treaties with governments and deeply engaged community stakeholders; delivering incremental empowerment to donors by building measurable financial streams which are rechanneled back into each Marine Protected Area; supplying results-oriented management focus on sustainable financing, conservation program implementation and income generation.

The work of Blue Finance (the enterprise) satisfies five of the UN SDGs:

  • SDG 1: No poverty
  • SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
  • SDG 13: Climate action
  • SDG 14: Life below water
  • SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals

2. Blue Carbon

According to the National Ocean Service, blue carbon is “the term for carbon captured by the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems” where sea grasses, mangroves, and salt marshes sequester carbon and act like a carbon sink. Although forests also capture carbon emissions, marine systems do it ten times faster and store three to five times more carbon for the same area than mature tropical forests.

The infographic by Wild View below explains what blue carbon is and why it is important.

blue carbon infographic
Source: Wild View

The Blue Carbon Initiative, an international programme to alleviate climate change by restoring and enhancing the sustainable utilization of coastal and marine habitats, states that 83% of the global carbon cycle is disseminated through the ocean but seaside habitats cover less than 2% of the total ocean expanse, and oceanic ecosystems make up about 50% of the entire carbon captured in ocean sediments.

3. Sustainable Fisheries Management

Fish trawler bringing up load of fish
Photo by Paul Einerhand on Unsplash

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) defines sustainable fishing as “leaving enough fish in the ocean and protecting habitats and threatened species. By safeguarding the oceans, people who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods”. The sustainability of a fishery is evaluated using MSC’s Fisheries Standard which is based on three values:

  • Sustainable fish stocks
  • Minimizing environmental impact
  • Effective fisheries management

To find out more about MSC’s Fisheries Standard, click here.

The infographic by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, shows how sustainable fishing is maintained throughout the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone in the Pacific.

What makes U.S. Pacific Islands Fisheries among the world's most sustainable
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

4. Sustainable Tourism

two tourists over cobblestone on electric scooters
Photo by Vlad B on Unsplash

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council defines sustainable tourism as not referring to a specific type of travel but targets the need for all tourism impacts to be environmentally responsible.

See our full section on sustainable travel for more facts, tips and guides.

The term is also defined by the UN Environment Programme and UN World Tourism Organization as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

Learn how to be a responsible traveler by referring to the infographic by Fix:

leave no trace travel principles
Source: Fix.com

5. Renewable Energy

wind turbines on the water
Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) says that “marine energy resources, including ocean waves, tides, currents, and salinity and temperature gradients, are particularly well suited to address these power constraints in the blue economy because they are renewable, geographically co-located, and complementary to other energy sources”.

Hence, EERE launched the Powering the Blue Economy (PBE) initiative. To learn about its successes and impacts since 2019, click here.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) has announced a USD 10.3 million grant opportunity to expedite the research and development of supportable marine power expertise with priority on wave and ocean current reserves.

Statistics on the Environmental Harm of the Blue Economy

1. Ocean Acidification

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that “coal, crude oil, and natural gas are all considered fossil fuels because they were formed from the fossilized, buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Because of their origins, fossil fuels have a high carbon content”.

The graph by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Sustainable Ocean Economy database shows that Australia, Brazil and Japan utilize 100% of marine fossil fuels for the hydrocarbon industry whereas Germany, Greece, Latvia and Türkiye harness 100% of such fossil fuels for the transportation sector, and finally, Belgium and Estonia use 100% of these fossil fuels for the agriculture and fisheries industry.

graph: ocean-related fossil-fiel support measures by beneficiary
Source: OECD Sustainable Ocean Economy Database

An article by NOAA entitled “Global ocean is absorbing more carbon from fossil fuel emissions” (14 March 2019) declares that the world’s oceans sequestered 34 billion metric tons of carbon produced by burning fossil fuels from 1994 to 2007: a quadruple increase to 2.6 billion metric tons annually compared to the time frame beginning from 1800 (Industrial Revolution) to 1994.

Although carbon sequestration slows down global warming, dissolved carbon dioxide triggers ocean acidification. This impacts the capacity of shellfish and corals to manufacture their skeletons while distressing the wellbeing of other fish and marine organisms which are vital to marine economies and food safety.

The European Environment Agency also states that the buildup in airborne carbon dioxide during the industrial era caused an upsurge in aquatic acidity of around 30%.

2. Plastic Pollution

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has reported in its Issues Brief called “Marine plastic pollution” dated November 2021 that “over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year for use in a wide variety of applications and at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments”. To download a detailed writeup, click here.

Plastic waste is found in all segments of the oceans and in marine organisms:

different types of plastic waste found in the oceans
Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature

3. Oil Spills

The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), a non-profit organization founded by global shipowners to provide a successful response to worldwide marine spillage of oil, chemicals and other dangerous agents, has provided the Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2022. To obtain the full report, click here.

According to these data, there were 3 large spills (greater than 700 tons) and 4 medium spills (7-700 tons) in 2022. Two of the large spills happened in Asia and the third one in Africa. The medium spills took place in North America, Asia and Africa. These incidents resulted in a decade average of almost 6 spills (more than 7 tons) annually which is comparable to the average for the 2010s. The total quantity of oil lost in 2022 was about 15,000 tons.

a. Spill Frequency

There has been a downward trend in the past 50 years for spillages of more than 7 tons. In the 1970s, the average number of spills annually was about 79 and this dwindled down to 6 (more than 90%) in the 2010s and continues for the current decade.

Graph: tanker spills decreasing
Source: International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited

For a macro look, the number of spills per decade has been consistently diminishing.

Note: only 3 years of data are available for the 2020 decade.

Graph: tanker spills decreasing
Source: International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited

b. Spillage vs. Seaborne Oil Trade

As the growth in marine oil trade necessitates intensified global tanker movements, the number of oil spills has continued to abate.

Graph: Decline in Number of Tanker Spills
Source: International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited

c. Spill Quantity

As the spill frequency has decreased, so has the spill quantity. About 164,000 tons of oil were spilled in the 2010s from tankers of 7 tons and above which was a 95% contraction since the 1970s.

4. Overfishing

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) states that “overfishing puts more than one-third of all sharks, rays, and chimaeras at risk of extinction”.

Rabbit Fish, Chimaera monstrosa up close
Rabbit Fish, Chimaera monstrosa. Aka ghost shark, chimaera, ratfish. A deepwater holocephalan from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Credit: Andy Murch, sharksandrays.com

Chimaeras “are closely related to sharks, skates and rays. But they diverged from their shark relatives around 400 million years ago”. To learn more about the Chimaera, click here.

WWF’s infographic in “FACTS & FIGURES: THE COLD HARD FACTS ABOUT OVERFISHING” (undated) shows the issues related to overfishing:

Blue Economy 18 1
Source: WWF

5. Unsustainable Tourism

The Ocean Panel reveals that coastal and maritime tourism constitute at least 50% of total worldwide tourism and accounts for the largest market segment in most small island growth economies and many coastal states. To obtain a pdf copy of “Advancing Action Towards Sustainable Coastal and Marine Tourism”, click here.

An example of over-tourism or unsustainable tourism is the closure of Thailand’s Maya Bay where the famous Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” was filmed. Fortunately, it reopened in 2022. In order to preserve the ecology of this beautiful site, boats are not allowed into the bay.

Last Word on a Sustainable Blue Economy

The Blue and Circular Economies have proven to be effective models in advancing sustainable development. They provide solutions that take into consideration the limited resources of our planet and the need for economic growth that does not harm the environment.

The Blue Economy, with its emphasis on the sustainable use of ocean resources, promotes economic growth while preserving the health and productivity of our marine ecosystems. Meanwhile, the Circular Economy aims to reduce waste and ensure the efficient use of resources, creating a more sustainable and cost-effective approach to production and consumption.

By embracing these economic models, we can promote a more sustainable and equitable future for both current and future generations.