Demystifying the circular economy: Extended resource ownership

29th January 2021


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  • Biodiversity ,
  • Net positive ,
  • Education



Andy Whyle shares a model for helping to explain the concept of extended resource ownership to the layperson

As a circular economy practitioner and chair of IEMA’s Circular Economy (CE) Network, I have spent more years than I care to mention explaining the practical aspects of the circular economy to colleagues, engineers, academics, professors and even government scientific advisors. As many practitioners can testify, this can be a difficult task.

So, how do you explain the circular economy? Do you dazzle with technological and biological cycles, talk of material circularity? Or do you stick with the simplistic ‘take-make-dispose’ explanation and expect your audience to magically become ‘circularity crusaders’? Are you lost in the world of biological and technical cycles yet? Then consider how ‘normal’ people struggle with not only the concept of the circular economy, but also how to apply it in practice. The bigger challenge we face as experts is demystifying these principles so that more and more people can understand and apply them in their organisations.

The CE Network’s expert practitioners strive to develop and embed the principles of the circular economy into their relevant sectors. Representing a wide range of organisations (from regulatory agencies to consultancies) and operating in different sectors and industries (from construction to manufacturing), network members have followed the principles set out in IEMA’s The Value of Collaboration for Corporate Sustainability Outcomes to help advance good circular economy practice.

Conceptual models, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE System Diagram, are excellent at explaining why we should rethink what we do and how finite materials should flow to maintain circularity. However, to engage more people in delivering a circular economy, a more simplistic practical approach is required.

A few years back I was invited by a UK government chief scientific advisor to write a Business Lens chapter for the From Waste to Resource Productivity report, a useful reference document that was utilised for the Waste and Resources Strategy for England 2018. As part of this process I found myself in a meeting room in Westminster Abbey, pinned down under a verbal barrage from a group of professors and scientists, unable to make myself heard. I attempted to explain that for the circular economy to develop, we need to show how to deliver it, not just hope that ‘normal people’ would change the world using a picture with some circles on it. I went away and created a short list of aspects for a sustainable manufacturing organisation, which ultimately was included in the report as Extended Resource Ownership (ERO). I subsequently used visualisation to simplify the model as part of a Life Cycle Assessment module at UCL, and ultimately shared it with the CE Network Steering Group experts to make it even clearer and more applicable.

This now provides practitioners with a process flow model for engaging ‘non-believers’ through real-world examples and explanations at each part of the process flow, from circular design to procurement, from sustainable manufacturing to remanufacturing, from management of process wastes to industrial symbiosis and increasing the life and value of materials to drive a circular infrastructure. Ultimately you return to the design stage to reconsider how to build more circularity into existing and future products.

The deliberately simple process flow demystifies circular economy terminology for non-specialists, enabling practitioners and academics to share it with them. These ‘normal people’ can then relate to the high-level aspects of the organisation’s functions while being able to dive into the model to see practical applications and explanations.

Initially focusing on manufacturing, our next steps are to consider construction, the water industry and agriculture, with a view to incorporating any sector that needs to engage in the circular economy.

Close to 200 members tuned in for this resource’s launch webinar, and the Q&A session saw many questions asked, with lots of positive feedback.

This is exactly what’s needed when you don the hi-viz and explain circular economy aspects on the shopfloor” – Radha Daniel, PIEMA.

Linking the process flow for dealing with ‘waste’ and overlaying it with something which looks at ‘resource’ (ie repurposing) enables the organisation to move completely away from linear process” – Gillian Gibson, FIEMA.

The audience poll revealed that close to 80% of attendees would find it useful to have a process flow that supports embedding circular economy in their sectors. If you missed the session then you can watch it here.

One of my own lessons from developing this model was the importance of design – if you design in circularity at the beginning, it solves a great many issues later on. After highlighting the importance of circular economy design in the model, we are looking to hold a webinar on this in 2021 to engage designers in this critical phase of the process flow. The CE Network will continue to increase the awareness and engagement that is necessary to embed this model into everyday operations, further enabling us to Build Back Better.

If we are to have a circular economy in the UK, we need to expand from being a select club of circularity experts. Without the flow of materials through remanufacturing, reuse and recycling, there will be no infrastructure, no feedstock and no circular economy. The bigger challenge we face as experts is demystifying these principles so that more and more people can understand and embed them into their businesses.

This model, and the continued development of it through the CE Network’s expertise, can now enable this to happen.

If you have any suggestions or comments, or would like to support development of the model or join us on CE Network, please get in touch at [email protected]

Andy Whyle is an environment and sustainability specialist. He chairs the IEMA Fellows Working Group on Collaboration for Corporate Sustainability and the IEMA Circular Economy Network Steering Group.


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