Framing circularity

29th May 2015


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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Products ,
  • Ecodesign ,
  • Life Cycle Analysis


Noel Woods

Paul Suff talks to Phil Cumming about the development of a business standard for the circular economy

The circular economy is not a new concept, having its origins in several schools of thought, from regenerative design and the performance economy - which introduced the idea of an economy in loops - to cradle-to-cradle and biomimicry. What is new is the circular economy's rising popularity as more businesses seek an alternative to the linear "take, make, dispose" model, which relies on large quantities of increasingly expensive resources and energy.

To support the shift from a linear to a more circular economic model, BSI, the UK national standards body, has established a committee, SDS1 10 sustainable resource management, to develop an overarching framework standard for business. The working title for the standard is "Framework for implementing the circular economy in organisations" and the committee expects to publish a draft for public comment by autumn 2016, with the final version available in 2017.

Translating a macro concept

A research project by BSI in 2013 was the beginning of the journey to the framework standard on the circular economy. The remit for the project included exploring the role of standards and other tools to help organisations develop or improve their understanding of the concept and to start embedding it. The project discovered more than 200 standards related to specific areas of waste prevention and resource management but no formal standards that defined or focused entirely on the thinking behind the circular economy. A stakeholder forum in 2014 to discuss the project's findings concluded that a standard should be developed to help businesses identify their role in this, provide some clarity and direction on key areas, and highlight the potential risks and opportunities from adopting a more circular business model.

Phil Cumming, SDS1 10 chair, says the focus of the committee's work is to turn a macro concept into something that businesses can use to move forward. "The Ellen MacArthur Foundation [EMF] has done a fantastic job of welding the various schools of thought together into the concept of a circular economy, but businesses need to be able to turn that into practical action," he says. "There is a lot of theory and talk, but not as much action as there could be."

The committee has 60 members, including IEMA, the Green Alliance, Defra, the Scottish executive, Wrap and the Centre for Sustainable Design as well as the EMF and five of the companies belonging to its CE100 network.

In developing a framework standard, SDS1 10 is tasked with agreeing a set of definitions to promote a common understanding of the circular economy and associated processes, and investigating the role of "systems thinking" in its various models.

Cumming explains that, after discussions with several businesses that are already attempting to take this route, the work of the committee is focusing initially on these questions and areas:

  • How can organisations determine resource management risks and opportunities, and identify key resources and materials of concern?
  • How can organisations determine the relevance of the circular economy to them? What is their role? What are the implications for manufacturers, retailers, service-based organisations, and small and medium-size enterprises?
  • What are "open-loop" and "closed-loop" systems?
  • What is a closed-loop supply chain? How "closed" is good enough, while remaining feasible?
  • Guidance on the provenance and use of secondary materials - for example, recycled plastics, bearing in mind issues around chemicals and the EU REACH Regulation as well as the emerging transparency agenda.
  • Guidance on different business models, such as collaborative consumption and the sharing economy.

Barriers to change

Cumming, who was corporate sustainability manager at London 2012 organising body Locog and helped to develop the sustainable events standard BS 8901 (now ISO 20121), concedes that developing a workable standard will be challenging. "If we end up with a standard that is so complicated that only consultants can understand and use, we will have failed," he says. "It needs to be useful and easy to follow, and help businesses to develop and deliver more circular ways of operating."

One challenge he foresees is in gaining acceptance among advocates of the circular economy model that circularity is not automatically sustainable. "You could, for example, manufacture a window frame from recycled material. This might involve using a lot of energy and the product being full of toxic chemicals, which is not very energy-efficient and is not easy to recycle at the end of its life. As a committee we've already agreed that sustainable development is an underlying principle of the standard and organisations should look to pursue circularity if it is more sustainable rather than for circularity's sake."

He also points out that circularity is not, as many contend, wholly about resource scarcity, but could include issues like supply chains being disrupted by the effects of a changing climate, conflict minerals and other geo-political events.

Another potential barrier to overcome is making the standard relevant to a myriad of businesses. "Manufacturers and retailers will have different roles in the circular economy," Cumming says. "Many retailers, for example, do not manufacture their own products, so will have very little visibility of the materials that go into them or where they come from." Nonetheless, he believes if an organisation uses or manages resources, whether they are renewable, non-renewable or synthetic, they will need to adopt a similar approach to manage them more sustainably. "Broadly, they will first need to identify the key materials they use and are reliant on. Then determine if they actually need to use them all or in the same quantities. Last, they need to understand the associated risks and opportunities."

Cumming says the standard may also help clarify the role of the waste industry. "Traditionally, businesses have paid a waste management company to take away their waste. It was either put in landfill, incinerated or, if the material had some residual value, sold, often to an overseas reprocessor and shipped back to the UK in a new product," he says. "But waste doesn't exist in the circular economy, so waste companies and local authorities have to become enablers, helping with reusing materials for instance." He says there is evidence that some of the large waste firms are switching to service-based business models, but smaller companies may need support to adjust.

The committee is keen to ensure the standard employs the right language to encourage business to engage, says Cumming. "The language around the circular economy is much more business-friendly than terminology that accompanies climate change," he argues. "It's about physical things that companies can see and buy, so tends to have more traction at board level. The standard needs to retain that business vocabulary."

The business models associated with a circular economy, such as remanufacturing, leasing and sharing, present their own unique challenges that the framework standard will need to address. These include the contractual, liability, warranty and insurance issues emanating from the use of repaired or shared goods. Also, REACH does not apply to waste but does if it is turned into, or used in, a product.

Cumming suggests that such considerations, as well as issues around ecodesign, product specifications and measurement, might be covered in more detail in supporting standards. "It is clearly early days as far as the committee's thinking is concerned, but the framework standard will not be able to cover everything. Instead it will underline the key things that organisations should consider and possibly provide some commentary around the various options available to them, such as alternative business models and the approaches they can take to identify their key resources."

Lending a helping hand

SDS1 10, the committee developing the framework standard for a circular economy, wants to involve as many organisations as possible. Its chair, Phil Cumming, says the committee is keen to hear from companies active in the circular economy about their experiences and the lessons they have learned. The group is also looking for organisations to pilot the draft standard. The next committee meeting is on 6 July 2015. For more information or to register your interest, email the committee manager, Tom Digby-Rogers, at [email protected].


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