In August, I paid a brief tribute to my mother on her 90th birthday at a family gathering. While guests sipped coffee in the warm summer air, I ticked off a dozen pieces of wisdom she passed on 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 out, and leftover food would turn into tomorrow’s lunch. In other words, my mother was an early advocate of a circular economy, in which materials and products go through multiple iterations, and the waste from one process goes back and becomes the input for another.

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

The finitude of this stock separates materials from energy. There is no doubt that in the future we will be able to capture more solar energy and even build nuclear fusion reactors to eliminate energy shortages forever. But for material resources such technology is not in mind.

This is why the research reported in this Outlook is so important. As the world strives to put its economies on a sustainable footing, this Outlook looks at progress and barriers to sustainable use and reuse of plastics; electronic devices such as mobile phones; building materials; and clothing and other textiles. It also examines the transition of biofuels to a more environmentally friendly form that will promote agriculture that is less land-depleting and carbon-producing, and the urgent need for better management of the Earth’s water resources. The two researchers also debate whether plastic recycling is central to advancing the circular economy or a counterproductive distraction from the need for more fundamental change.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of Google in the production of this Outlook. As always, Nature assumes sole responsibility for all editorial content.