Dr Gev Eduljee, head of external affairs at Suez, discusses the broad nature of the concept of a circular economy.
As a circle stitching together the entire “take-make-dispose” economy, the circular economy concept is by its very nature a very broad church. But is this flexibility now becoming a hindrance? Comments made at the All-Party Sustainable Resource Group circular economy meeting on 15 July, that the concept was becoming “all things to all men”, echo similar views expressed by other waste-watchers. Rather than tracing a purposeful path from linearity to circularity, are we in danger of “going round in circles”, to quote a phrase fromletsrecycle.com (see letsrecycle.com story)?
There is some truth in this. With no formal, settled definition, the notion has become a catch-all for a bewildering array of policy objectives. Is it about resource conservation? resource efficiency? resource substitution? landfill diversion? waste prevention? ecodesign? remanufacture? recycling? resource security? jobs and growth? combatting climate change? changing consumption patterns?
Our response has been “all of the above”, and certainly they are all inter-related. But many of these policy strands are open to different interpretations. For example, it is possible to improve resource efficiency at a process level (more output for less input) while the business as a whole remains within the linear economy. The majority of project commitments within the European Commission’s Raw Materials Initiative (a feeder into the circular economy package) fall into this category.
Furthermore, our insistence that they are all equally important and need to be addressed at the same time has led to the policy paralysis we are witnessing in the Commission, and indeed in Defra. Opening up major policy reform across a myriad fronts has produced a logjam, with opposition to one or two particular issues holding up the development of the entire package.
Our ability to communicate the advantages of a circular economy is also hampered. Unlike with climate change, the circular economy lacks a “story” to convince businesses and the wider community of its relevance to their operations and their lives. If businesses and the public call for action, governments are more likely to take heed.
Our challenge is to sieve out the very important from the merely important and focus on these key policy objectives under the rubric of the circular economy, bound by a clear narrative thread. Other policy strands can of course develop alongside, but our main objective ought to be to de-clutter the policy space we call the circular economy.
We could do well to take a leaf out of Japan’s book. Japan has distilled the essence of the circular economy into three simple input-output indicators, each with metrics and targets which have been tracked over the past 10 years:
(a) Resource productivity (GDP/natural resource input)
(b) Circulation/recycling of municipal and C&I waste as a function of total resource input
(c) Final disposal amount of municipal and C&I waste
Coupled with a comprehensive material flow tracking system and producer responsibility scheme Japan has pursued its goal of resource optimisation and resource security, sidestepping the debilitating effects of policy confusion we are suffering in Europe.