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Making sense of the circular economy

Making sense of the circular economy

The vision of a circular economy is inspiring businesses and environmentalists to take action, and it is becoming a hot topic in the urgent pursuit of curbing waste and global warming. But what is a circular economy?

“The notion of a circular economy is to create resources and keep them in the economy for as long as possible and use as much of it as possible,” explained Professor Davidson who is Director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies. “As opposed to the linear economy of today, whereby we extract value by using natural resources for a very short period of time and then dispose of it.”

Philippa Roberts is an entrepreneur and CEO of Binit UK – a waste and recycling business that operates an ethos of ‘waste nothing’.

“A circular economy is about so much more than just recycling and the value of the physical resources,” said Philippa Roberts. “It should also include knowledge and education, and the sharing of it and the data that’s collected. It needs to also encompass money and labour as that leads to a sustainable future. At its core is the physical resources but it only works if the other aspects are there too.”

Many experts see transitioning to a circular economy being key to achieving net zero and a more sustainable future. A report from the global think tank, The Club of Rome, argues that by adopting a key set of circular economy policy measures, it is possible to cut carbon emissions by 70% by 2030.

However, creating a circular economy is not a quick fix for our environmental woes.

“I don’t think people understand the consequences of having a circular economy,” said Professor Davidson. “For example, in a linear economy you’re relying on the resources to be cheap and the labour to be expensive but with a circular economy it’s the opposite – the labour is cheap, but the resources are expensive. This is quite a transition to overcome.

“Not everything circular is sustainable. There are three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental, and wellbeing; and a circular economy doesn’t necessarily tackle all or any of those aspects.

“It’s often assumed that if something is circular then it must be environmentally friendly. Intrinsically, first-generation biofuels are circular but it’s certainly not sustainable; if what you’re doing, for example, is chopping down rainforests to obtain palm oil. There can be a lot of environmental consequences but the process itself is still circular,” explained Professor Davidson.

“You could argue that if the process doesn’t fulfil the three pillars of sustainability then it shouldn’t be done. But we can’t go from where we are now to a utopian sustainable society in one leap. We have to go on a journey of knowledge to achieve a better future. As with the example of biofuels, the second and third-generation biofuels that we’re starting to see are much more sustainable.

“So, if you take the position of every decision needs to be demonstrably 100% sustainable – you’re completely inhibiting the innovation needed to transition from our current state of a linear fossil economy to a more circular and sustainable future,” concluded Professor Davidson.

Philippa Roberts agrees that a circular economy is key to reducing climate change, but it’s certainly not an overnight solution.

“I think we should aspire to make everything circular but it’s a journey and it takes time to understand the unintended consequences of what we do,” explained Philippa Roberts. “Plastic is a prime example of that. It was introduced as a packaging material that would enable products to last longer, reduce wastage and the carbon impact of transportation. Plastics have achieved this and more, but we’ve now got a material that is going to cause huge problems in our ecosystem for hundreds of years.

“The Finnish government has made huge progress and they’ve included the concept of a circular economy in their primary school curriculum; which I think is a fantastic idea. They have recognised that it’s a long game and that embedding a circular economy will take time, so they’re starting at the very beginning; paving the way for the designers of the future to be automatically thinking about how to be circular,” explained Philippa Roberts.

To achieve the transition to a circular economy, Professor Davidson argues we need more technical innovation, policy regulation, and a shift in public behaviour: “Sustainable transformations such as converting CO2 into synthetic fuel at scale and integrating them, requires large-scale technical advances, and in my area of expertise there’s a huge focus on more efficient, selective, benign and robust catalysis.

“Governments like to have a silver bullet, but they’re understanding the changes that need to happen and there’s growing momentum with regard to policy regulation and discussions at a global, national and local level.

“A sustainable company is a good business and the environmental impact of big corporations has gained news headlines and hit their share prices. And, we’re starting to see brands lead the way on sustainability,” said Professor Davidson.

Philippa Roberts has seen a shift in recent years concerning attitudes to commercial waste, with businesses looking to reduce their impact on the environment and Binit is helping them achieve this.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at Binit is getting better data. Intel about commercial waste is very poor,” explained Philippa Roberts. “For household waste, local authorities have to report how much was collected and where it’s going. There’s no central conduit for commercial waste so we don’t have a handle on how much businesses are throwing away and what they’re disposing of. Until you know what’s going into the bin, it’s very hard to make better procurement choices. We’re working to understand our clients better, what resources flow through their business, and at what speed, we can have those conversations and help them make better decisions.

“We’re seeing more B2C businesses open to having these conversations or asking how their waste can be recycled better. I think their customers are now asking more questions and expect brands to be doing more about their use of packaging.

“If this feeds down to B2B for example, an accountancy firm tendering to undertake business accounting may be asked to detail their sustainability practices. The bigger companies want to become leaders of sustainability and they’re pioneering a circular economy,” explained Philippa Roberts.

Creating a circular economy across five key sectors – cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food – could cut CO2 emissions by 3.7 billion tonnes in 2050. But experts argue this is wider than just an environmental issue saying it simply makes social and economic sense to make better use of our scarce resources by designing a system to avoid waste and keep materials in use for longer.

“The circular economy is an easy to understand concept that allows us to live a life with a different sort of impact,” said Philippa Roberts. “If you want widespread backing to reduce climate change, I don’t think you’ll ever get it by banning air travel and telling people they can’t fly to other countries. But if we can make air travel circular and powered by renewable fuels rather than fossil fuels; then it’s not a reductionist way of living – it’s a better way of living. The circular economy is a much more effective concept as a means of changing the way people think about their lives.”

Making the shift to a circular economy will not be easy but the reward is a world where we consume less and live better within an economy that supports a more sustainable future.

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