This post is by Libby Peake, head of resources and Tom Booker, policy assistant at Green Alliance.
In 2012, the year we launched our Circular Economy Task Force (CETF), our annual review noted: “Circular economy thinking has begun to influence economic policy in Germany, China and Japan. It is beginning to gain traction in the UK, but we still have a long way to go.”
Since then, the idea that we need a more circular economy – to minimise resource use, reduce waste and keep materials in use at their highest value for as long as possible – has been embraced by governments all over the world, and by politicians of all stripes.
In the UK, support for the idea made it into the recent manifestos of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP, and the Conservative government’s overarching promise in its resources and waste strategy is to “move to a more circular economy which keeps resources in use for longer”. All of this suggests the merits of a circular economy are now widely recognised. There has been welcome EU and UK policy development since 2012, especially when it comes to recycling.
We are proud, too, of the role that our business-led task force has played in embedding this idea into the political consciousness and achieving a higher level of ambition in post-Brexit resource policy. This includes successfully advocating for the harmonisation of recycling services, for reform to producer responsibility rules, and for greater ambition on resource efficiency standards, as well as ensuring that the UK transposed the headline recycling target from the EU’s Circular Economy Package, when there was a real risk it might not.
But our job is nowhere near complete. The longstanding problems with recycling in England are still only in the process of being sorted out, with the government just concluding its consultations on packaging and collection reforms. But, more importantly, we need to get to the root of the problems of our wasteful patterns of consumption, and to reduce the excessive use of resources in the first place. This can only be done by fully embedding the idea of resource efficiency and a circular economy into all parts of the economic system.
We need to move from warm words to action
So we are delighted to announce a new phase of our Circular Economy Task Force (CETF), which, in line with Green Alliance’s new strategy, will be pushing the government to move from warm words to concrete action.
Along with our task force members – currently Corplex, Kingfisher, PwC, Schneider Electric, SUEZ and Viridor – we are working on promoting effective and innovative policies to shift the country to a truly circular economy.
Covid-19 in particular has shed light on the considerable risks to the just in time supply chains of vital goods. Not only is there greater interest in resource security, but there is also more concern about the environmental impact of these supply chains, as has been illustrated by the government’s new due diligence obligations around deforestation in the Environment Bill.
We are taking this opportunity to investigate how supply chain due diligence can be encouraged. This includes ways to ensure businesses understand their impacts better and how to reduce them, and extending the government’s approach beyond the illegal deforestation that the Environment Bill aims to tackle, to other environmental issues, like carbon and waste.
One area of particular interest will be around resources that are in relatively short supply or which carry supply chain risks but are essential to the functioning of the economy. Many technologies central to decarbonisation require critical raw materials, which is why they are firmly back on the political agenda. But their mining, processing and refining can cause considerable environmental harm, and they are often geographically concentrated, with some nations looking to shore up their primary supply of such materials at the expense of other countries.
When it comes to climate change, the world with succeed or fail collectively, and so it makes no sense for a few powerful countries to secure all the resources they need to reduce their emissions if that then means emissions stay high or even increase elsewhere. Over the next year or so, CETF will be investigating the role of resource efficiency and using secondary resources in providing much greater security of critical materials for the UK. This will include investigating how they can be sustainably supplied as well as reducing demand and, in line with the principles we’ve been promoting for nearly a decade, ensuring they are kept in use at their highest value for as long as possible.
According to the UN, resource extraction and processing drives half of global greenhouse emissions and an astounding 90 per cent of biodiversity loss. In our research and policy recommendations, we are guided by the overwhelming need to end the over consumption of resources. How we manage this issue will be the make or break action in overturning the climate and nature crises. In the 2020s we have to leave behind the old idea of the linear economy, built on profligate waste and a dangerous disregard of its consequences, and create instead a clean circular economy that allows people, industries and the planet we depend on to thrive into the future.