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Embracing The Circular Economy


“Economics is broken,” says Kate Raworth, visionary author of Doughnut Economics. “It has failed to predict, let alone prevent, financial crises that have shaken the foundations of our societies.”

Frankly, so is global manufacturing. Every year, according to the World Bank, we send nearly three quarters of a billion tonnes of waste to landfill, relentlessly depleting the Earth’s finite resources while polluting the air, land and sea. Across the world, less than 15 percent of our waste is recycled.

It took the 2008 financial collapse to challenge the commitment of mainstream economists to the 20th-century mantra of never-ending growth in GDP. Even now, with the accelerating climate crisis and the massive fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen whether the lessons have truly been learned by governments and global businesses.  ‘Build Back Better’ is on every politician’s and CEO’s lips, but are they really talking about creating a new, sustainable circular economy based on social inclusion and protecting the Earth, or simply rushing to reinstate a ‘better’ linear or pseudo-circular model?

As citizens, we need to send them a clear message by embracing circularity ourselves, through our actions and purchasing decisions.  Fortunately, there is a great deal that we can do locally that meets the needs of everyone in our communities, while protecting the complex ecosystem we all inhabit.  Many of these exciting ideas are explored by our panellists in Carbon Copy’s recent webinar How Communities Can Enable the Circular Economy (click the link to watch on catch-up).

“We want an end to linear manufacturing, Take-Make-Waste, where damage to the environment is designed in,” insists Lucy Siegle, writer, broadcaster and chair of the Real Circularity Coalition.  “We need to create consumer appetite and an understanding of what a real circular economy looks like, so people can identify what’s good and bad; real and not real.”

Lucy contrasts ‘real circularity’, where all products are designed to be 100 percent recyclable or reusable forever, with semi-circularity (some products are recycled and re-used, but many still end up in landfill or the ocean).  Even worse is pseudo-circularity: “Manufacturers claim their clothing is ‘sustainable’, but increasingly they’re using fibres blended with synthetic materials, which are very difficult – and non-desirable – to separate because it involves chemical recycling.  People like to think they’re wearing fashion, but they’re actually wearing plastic.”

“We’re at a crossroads,” she suggests. “The EU’s Waste Framework Directive, revised in 2018, will through various different avenues start to unpick the monstrous hoax of recycling.  Claimed recycling figures will plummet, but this is an opportunity to move towards real circularity.”

The danger is, she warns, “the linear system is so compelling in a capitalist economy.  With everything we buy, we send millions of messages a day to manufacturers, retailers and services giving a big thumbs up to linearity.  We need an intervention which is going to disrupt that – at a cultural level, at a policy and legislative level, and at a community level.”

Another organisation with plastic waste in their sights is City to Sea, whose mission is to prevent plastic pollution at source – by reducing demand.  They concentrate on single-use plastic items most commonly found on our beaches.  CEO Rebecca Burgess: “We run campaigns to empower the individual to make a difference by taking action.”  Refill, which has now spread to 10 countries, is an award-winning campaign that enables people, using their free app, to find one of over 30,000 refill stations (often a shop) where they can refill their own water bottle for free.

Rebecca is also passionate about eliminating single-use plastics that we’re expected to put into our bodies.  Menstrual products are currently the fifth most common item found on European beaches – more widespread than single-use coffee cups, cutlery or straws. “In the last year,” she says, “the Rethink Periods education programme has delivered unbiased period education to over 100,000 UK primary and secondary school pupils through over 700 specially-trained teachers and nurses.”

Moving towards real circularity is a journey, and re-use of household items that were not designed for recycling and remanufacturing is a vital step on the way.  Many councils aim to achieve this at their recycling centres, but once an item is in the skip, it cannot legally be re-sold.  Joanna Dainton, who runs Bristol Waste’s ReUse Shop, explains why her operation is so successful: “One reason is that we put the doors to our shop underneath the Avonmouth recycling centre, so we’re right at the heart of what’s going on there.  We can intercept people before they throw reusable items, like a working TV, into the bins.”

Joanna has practical advice for other councils looking to set up a similar shop: “Councils have a choice of ReUse models: the shops can be run by charities on behalf of the local council; councils can set up and run their own shops as in Bristol; or they can appoint a private waste contractor to do it.”

Whichever way they choose, it’s vital to be imaginative, and Joanna’s team is always thinking up new ways to draw people to their ReUse shop.  “We had the great idea of selling ‘ReColour’ remanufactured paint, which can be precisely colour matched like much more expensive retail brands.  We can now fully recycle paint in large volumes that would otherwise go to waste.”  As well as high-quality, colour-matched paint, they also produce inexpensive packaging-free, peat-free compost made locally from Bristol’s garden waste.

Helping the general public to sign up to circular living is not that simple. “If the choice to be more circular is difficult and time-consuming,” admits Joanna, “then the great majority of ordinary people won’t do it. We’ve found at the ReUse shop, we have to make it really easy for people to do the right things – convenience is essential”.

Rebecca agrees: “We need inspirational business leaders to set the path, because when you ask consumers who needs to change, they don’t think it’s them! They want to be told what to do by their retailers, brands and government – that’s the reality.”

As we’ve heard in previous discussions – such as encouraging people to give up owning big smart private cars – moving to circular living is very much about personal aspiration and self-image. “People are really drawn to success,” suggests Lucy. “They like to be on the winning side.  We need to make choosing circularity look and feel like success.”

Further reading suggested by our webinar attendees:

What is the Circular Economy? by Heather Dinwoodie

What a Sustainable Circular Economy Would Look Like by Anne Velenturf

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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