Resource security through a circular economy

This post is by Julie Hill, Green Alliance associate and chair of the Circular Economy Task Force launched by Green Alliance.

Today Green Alliance launches the Circular Economy Task Force. For me, this represents unimaginable progress from when I first entered this debate more than 15 years ago, a debate largely concerned with how to construct a better landfill. For many years it was the European Union that pushed the UK to let go of our attachment to landfill and aim for higher recycling, with considerable success. But today, I am pleased to say, the language of the Circular Economy is coming as strongly from the UK as from other leading countries.

As the debate has moved from recycling to reuse and remanufacturing, the impetus has shifted from government to business. At least so far. Businesses recognise the opportunities inherent in preventing loss. Loss of energy, materials and water from the economy in the form of waste can also represents loss to the bottom line. Capturing value from the materials flows is the new mantra. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that action?

Creating a compelling picture of the future
This changed paradigm will undoubtedly lead to more circularity; a result of better awareness, innovative business partnerships, and investors prepared to make a down payment on the future and provide the capital expenditure for new products and processes.  But it will also hit barriers: risk aversion, reverting to the tried and tested, calls for long term certainty of a kind not yet available. How do we create a sufficiently compelling a picture of what the future looks like?

Take plastics. In the UK, we consume five million tonnes of plastic a year. We only make half of it here. After its (often fairly short) period of use, we only recapture around a quarter of it, and of that quarter, we reprocess only a third in the UK. We are a very open economy when it comes to plastics. How many jobs could we create by closing the plastics loop closer to home? And how much resilience to the volatilities in the price of oil (the present feedstock of choice for most of our plastics) could we iron out by consciously capturing the value of plastics within our shores?

A place to test the options
The Task Force has not yet carved out its territory for enquiry, that is for the partner companies, in conversation with Defra, BIS and other key departments to do.  But we are clear that securing resilience and capturing value are the organising principles, and that showcasing cutting edge business practice is the mode. Against these we can test materials, which ones matter most from a resource security and circularity potential perspective, if we superimpose one on the other? We can also test policy options and which would better prevent loss.  Landfill restrictions, greater producer responsibility or a well-designed suite of fiscal incentives?  Most of all we can test investment intentions, and ask those providing the capital: if the future looked like this, would you buy into it?

Green Alliance is launching the Circular Economy Task Force tonight at an event with Dame Ellen MacArthur.

2 comments

  • Maximizing value creation from material flows, rather than material consumption, is essential to decoupling economic benefit from resource consumption. We all need to move from being consumers to custodians of the earth’s valuable resources – a shift in societal mindset.

    This leads to a redefinition of manufacturing – concerned with all the process and logistics associated with transforming material resources at every stage of the cycle. The distinction between product creation and disposal will blur into many steps where useful resource streams come together or separate, delivering value in many ways. There are technical, regulatory and cultural barriers to overcome, most of which are man-made against the context of a linear economy. But emerging techno-economic modelling will illustrate the size of the prize and, I hope, provide impetus to overcoming these barriers.

  • Pingback: #Manchester #climate nuggets July 9 2012 | manchester climate monthly

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