From rubbish to refuse

30th November 2023


David Burrows on the stolen concept of a circular economy, and how reduction must be at the heart of product design

Do we know what a circular economy is any more? The question was posed in an article in Grist, a non-profit online magazine focused on climate change, following Circularity 2023, an annual US conference aimed at accelerating the circular economy. Most of the activity among the global corporates gathered in Seattle reportedly focused on recycling and specifically on recycling plastics. “I came away feeling like circularity has become synonymous with recycling,” said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign. “[It’s] like we’ve lost the true definition,” she added.

Her concerns apparently reflected a “broader uneasiness” within the environmental community about the way corporations have embraced circularity in their communications but are not necessarily living up to its standards in practice. Is this really the case? In short, yes. Who is to blame and whether this is necessarily a bad thing are more complicated to answer.

The Grist article raises concerns that resonate with experts in the UK. The think tanks, NGOs and consultancies we spoke to all said the circular economy has become synonymous with recycling. Debbie Hitchen, director of sustainable production and consumption at consultancy Anthesis, captured the zeitgeist when she said: “The concept of circular economy has long been abbreviated down to the lowest common form of interpretation, because it’s a complex subject to communicate. Many organisations talk about circularity when they mean recyclable, or, at best, recycled content and recyclable. This doesn’t mean these initiatives are not achieving some sustainability benefits, but the real social and environmental gain is to be found in the territories of the other ‘re’ solutions: reduction, repair, reuse, remanufacture, for example.”

In responding to Grist’s takedown of its conference, GreenBiz noted that the circular economy “can’t be an exclusive club” and that “progress on recyclability is incremental but progress nonetheless”. Fair points. But there was little evidence of a way forward or recognition of how slowly things are moving (even on recycling of packaging).

Many fast-moving consumer goods companies are content for recycling to remain the focus because it means their business models barely change. This also leads to a peaceful life for politicians keen not to rock the market too much. But to deliver the circular economy required to meet net zero, business models have to be broken and policymakers must make painful choices. And soon.

Shouting the c-word

Recycling is actually the least-best option within the circular economy. So, when you hear the words, ‘We can’t recycle our way out of this’, it actually means we need to focus on reduction and reuse. These are tougher nuts to crack because of the c-word that everyone wants to ignore. “Reduction needs to be at the very heart of the circular economy,” explains Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, “[but] that brings you to the question of consumption.”

How can selling less be good for business or GDP? It is a topic The Economist grappled with five years ago. There were details of the light bulb manufacturers that agreed to ensure their products only last a maximum of 1,000 hours, and companies that made it difficult to mend or repair their products. “The question is how to persuade those firms to go against their apparent self-interest [of selling more] to create a more circular economy,” the report reads.

There is plenty of evidence showing the financial and environmental benefits of the circular economy – from job creation and more efficient use of resources to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings.

In the UK alone, the circular economy could add £82bn to the economy and create 99,000 jobs, as well as save 33 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MTCO2e) associated with consumption.

Globally, emissions from the production of materials like metals, minerals, woods and plastics more than doubled between 1995 and 2015, accounting for almost 25% of all GHG emissions worldwide; but the issue receives far less attention in climate discussions than food, energy or transport. Consider food waste, for example: reducing it is an economic and environmental win, and yet we are struggling to do so. Or how few reusable options there are for collecting groceries or even takeaway coffee.

CO2 and the circular economy

In a 2022 report, Green Alliance noted that developing the circular economy is an “underutilised solution” for the UK’s net-zero transition and post-Covid economic recovery. It also highlighted that the extraction and processing of resources go “far beyond” carbon, causing over 90% of nature loss and water scarcity, with negative impacts on local communities and biodiversity alike.

Peake is among those crying out for ministers to intervene and encourage more circular thinking. The UK government is “really falling short” when it comes to resource productivity policies, adds Adam Batchelor, policy and engagement lead for circular economy and environmental management at IEMA. We are lacking the policy drivers for people to operate on those ‘higher Rs’ in the waste hierarchy, he adds.

The government’s waste prevention programme – ‘Maximising resources, minimising waste’ – relies heavily on voluntary agreements, for example. There is a long-term target in place, set under the Environment Act, to reduce residual waste, measured in kilograms per capita, by 50% by 2042 from 2019 levels (574kg per capita). But this is far less ambitious than the original plans, which also included a resource efficiency target. “If there is no resource efficiency target then what are the constraints on reducing the stuff we use,” Colin Church, CEO at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IoM3), told me when the target was announced. A case of the c-word being ignored again, it seems.

Also ignored in the target are major mineral wastes. An ENDS Report analysis of the latest figures says England produced 133 million tonnes of waste in 2020, and packaging accounted for just 6%. Municipal and household waste accounted for another 25%. However, the remainder was commercial and industrial waste (25%) and, significantly, construction and demolition waste (40%). The latter, constituting 53 million tonnes, is the portion not included in the target.

New policies tend to focus on the easier portion of our waste, and on recycling rather than higher up the waste hierarchy at reuse and reduction. It is clearly not enough. Can businesses step up alone?

Green Alliance research suggests it won’t be easy. Net-zero commitments are forcing companies to look at circular models in order to reduce emissions; increasing scrutiny of business impacts on biodiversity will add further pressure to consider resource impacts. A level playing field would accelerate change, though. The Treasury, as detailed in a Green Alliance report, may well have a unique role to play. It could address parts of the tax system that actively discourage greater circularity – for example, by making it zero VAT rated, including on parts and labour.

IEMA has been working on a new Circular Economy 101 guide, which offers six goals for businesses or policymakers wanting to implement a circular economy. “They need some kind of framework,” explains Batchelor, and the guide helps to “demystify” some of the thinking around the concept. There are also priorities for design, at the top of which is ‘refuse’ – the product may not need to exist in the first place. Companies also need to think about reuse and how to repair the products (something we are seeing from EU policymakers and potentially through Scotland’s Circular Economy Bill).

Legislation takes time, though, which leaves businesses needing to make “big moves” on circularity, according to Sian Sutherland, co-founder at NGO A Plastic Planet. “This starts at the design stage, because they may be responsible for products beyond their end of life and into second, third and fourth lives,” she says.

Movers and shakers

Those that understand the significance of resource efficiency and act now will be the resilient businesses (and economies) of the future. There are signs of progress, albeit piecemeal. “Typically, it’s easier to start a company with circularity embedded at the heart of the operating model than it is to retrofit it,” explains Hitchen at Anthesis.

There is excitement around platforms such as Vinted and Thrift for secondhand clothes, but there are also tool libraries and companies that ‘sell light’ rather than light bulbs and fixtures; and even an entire building that can be reused. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has a growing library of startups that demonstrate one or more principles of the circular economy. “These startups are all on a journey and collectively contributing to the circular economy transition,” the foundation notes.

As GreenBiz argues, collaboration will be key. Lessons will also be learned. Some businesses have already headed down cul-de-sacs (such as downcycling plastic bottles into clothing rather than ‘new’ bottles). As the European Parliament notes in its definition of the circular economy, it is a model of consumption and production that involves “sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum.” The sooner businesses and policymakers realise that, the sooner the benefits of circular thinking can be maximised.

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher

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