Making the circular economy a reality

This post is by Green Alliance associate Julie Hill.

We held the final meeting of our Designing Out Waste business consortium last week.  In the words of one of the companies, with this work we ‘led the debate from designing out waste to the concept of the circular economy’.  Now we want to take the circular economy concept, where resources are properly valued and retained usefully in the economy for as long as possible, from an idea to reality.

As our presentation (From Designing Out Waste to the Circular Economy) at the meeting showed, there is already some leadership towards this goal, from UK’s devolved governments, the EU and businesses, but progress is still partial and fragmented. 

Businesses want a framework
What the businesses tell us, above all, is that they want a consistent policy framework that guides their products and processes away from a linear economy model, and rewards their innovation.

In our presentation we showed just how circular vs linear the UK economy currently is:

It saves money and the environment
The benefits of a circular economy are clear.  Our consortium has been instrumental in building the case, both in terms of cost savings and reduced environmental impact.    There are some big numbers attached to the benefits from using materials more effectively and keeping products in use longer, not just from lower raw material costs, but also from the energy and water savings to be made through better resource stewardship.

Choosing which policy levers to pull to realise these benefits is the next big challenge, one that Green Alliance is taking up by convening the Circular Economy Task Force.  Supported by leading companies as well as Defra and other key actors, the Task Force will put flesh on the bones of the circular economy aspiration.

We already have the tools
The best news is that there is a huge amount we can do with existing policy instruments.  The most promising of these is the EU’s Ecodesign directive, which already saves consumers and businesses money and carbon with every product it improves.  As a forthcoming report from the Dutch consultancy Ecofys shows, the current directive could create EU-wide net savings of €90 billion per year, and potentially much more if the directive expands to include efficiency savings on non-energy impacts.

It would also help companies if it gave a clear steer on the design criteria for a sustainable product. For the circular economy to become a reality, we need to consider circularity from the very beginning of the product journey.   At the other end of the chain we would reap huge benefits  by restricting the loss to landfill of valuable materials, thereby stimulating  innovation and investment in more effective means of recovery.

As we shape the Circular Economy Task Force, in partnership with its member businesses, we will keep the pros and cons of the various available policy instruments in mind.  However, we’re clear that it is leadership that matters.  Businesses have voiced their desire to be part of a more circular economy and shown their ability to deliver part of it.  They now need a policy process to help them get there.

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