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Unlocking the Circular Economy

The need for systemic change

The planet is suffering. News of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and floods are becoming a daily reality. The impacts of extreme weather events are disastrous for all living beings and add to existing social challenges. Most importantly, we are running against time to avoid crossing our planetary boundaries to a point of no return.

To tackle the climate emergency, we need to globally reduce 45% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. So far, efforts have been concentrated on the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency. However, that can only address 55% of global greenhouse gas carbon emissions. The other 45% comes from the manufacture, consumption and disposal of products and materials we use in our daily lives, from what we buy in the supermarket to everything inside our homes. This production, however, is dictated by the linear economy we currently live in, which is wasteful and destructive.

At the moment, we are used to a system that takes, makes and wastes. Manufactures and producers use natural resources to make goods (food, clothes, building materials), and once we (partially) consume those, we throw them away. Worn-out clothes or old buildings cease to fulfil their (initial) purpose and we feel the need to replace them. The problem with this approach is that instead of repurposing those items, the current system incentivises us to give up on them; according to Levi Strauss, a piece of clothing is discarded after being worn only seven to 10 times on average.

The same applies in the built environment: we knock down perfectly fine structures or send materials that could be reused directly to landfills or incinerators. This means that the industry constantly requires virgin materials to make brand new products, which continues to deplete our resources and produce carbon emissions. The gloomy conclusion is that we end up losing a lot of resource value of the products already in circulation and destroying the planet as consequence.

A complete systemic change is critical to breaking this linear process and helping us to achieve our climate goals. This is where the circular economy can make a difference.

What is circular economy?

There are many definitions of circular economy. At its core, circular economy, contrary to the linear economy, aims to capture and prolong the value of products for as long as possible. It ensures resources can cascade back into the system, be it through reuse, refurbishment, or recycling. Waste, therefore, is seen as a resource, and non-toxic materials (such as renewable energy) are prioritised.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as ‘a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution’.

It further outlines the three principles that underpin circularity:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution
  • Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
  • Regenerate nature

In other words, we should be using waste as a resource, stretching the life of products and materials as much as possible, and employing practices that do not contribute to environmental degradation.

Much more than the environment

The circular economy contributes to reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and improving resilience and biodiversity. However, even though the circular economy has an explicit connection to our climate challenges and how we treat our environment, it also speaks directly to society and provides socio-economic benefits.
Circular economy fosters economic growth by generating demand for new types of businesses and innovative practices. It increases business revenues due to the reduction of virgin material use and material cost savings, and creates stronger supply chains that generate confidence for other businesses to thrive.

The reduced cost of products and services also contributes to increasing disposable income and regenerative practices help to improve wellbeing and physical health by reducing pollution and the use of toxic substances, such as pesticides. At a local scale, circular economy can be a common goal that brings people together, activating and inspiring community participation.

Understanding the wider benefits of circularity and the opportunities it creates to connect society, the economy and the environment is crucial to unlock delivery routes and create better places.

Barriers to transitioning to a circular economy

Despite having multiple benefits, transitioning to a circular economy comes with several barriers. They can be related to knowledge, costs, networks, behaviour change, political support, logistics and scale, among others. However, some of them are more influential than others.

PRD has undertaken several projects that look at the potential for circular economy initiatives. One recent project in LB Hackney was to help businesses to transition to circular economy practices. Our work identified a number of barriers to establishing the beginnings of a circular economy, with the two greatest being:

  • Lack of capability. Having the theoretical and technical knowledge of how circularity works and could be implemented in the context of a specific company
  • Viability. The high up-front costs to implement a new system or lack of product cost-competitiveness

We have also found that those businesses just starting their circular journey struggle more with knowledge than viability: they first need to understand the concept of circular economy before being able to act upon it.
In contrast, businesses that have already taken steps at developing or implementing circular practices and have overcome these initial barriers tend to struggle with the lack of established networks and supporting supply chains. This means sticking with circular practices will bear more effort than maintaining the status quo, which is a barrier in its own right.

What can we do?

The idea of embedding circular economy principles in businesses and communities can be overwhelming. The challenge to implement it can feel too complex and difficult, or something that others should be doing. Here are some ideas that can start to support this transition:

Break it apart. Start by identifying the multiple components of circularity and where optimisation will provide the greatest return. Understanding where materials come from and go to, where value is being lost and solutions to change this are crucial to determining where the potential lies. Circularity tackles very complex issues, and breaking it down to what is within our reach makes it easier to continue to walk that route.

Connect businesses on different moments of their journey. Networks, whether informal or formal, are crucial to the long-term success of circular practices. Networks enable partnerships, knowledge sharing, and an expanding web of resources. Strong networks also provide insights on material reuse possibilities, are inclusive, and help to demystify circularity, bringing it closer to our day-to-day lives. Networking further provides opportunities for pep talks when things get tough and for celebrating wins together, building a powerful community around circular practices.

Bring the public sector along the journey. Governmental authorities need to commit continuous support to allow steps towards circularity. The public sector has a crucial role to play as an enabler and convenor, developing wider strategies that establish long-term visions, tying together bottom-up approaches through strong networks and supply chains, and providing access to finance, investment, or use of public land.

Decentralise resources. Creating city-wide strategies is important but decentralisation is what will make circularity accessible to all. Smaller material hubs require less land and funds and can spread out more easily in the urban fabric. They can also work as individual units or come together to deliver things at scale, when in combination with other partnerships and networks. The ability to alternate between local and larger scales is essential to enable the transition.

What’s next?

For us to have a successful circular economy, change needs to happen at different scales, from the individual to single businesses to the neighbourhoods and city scales. Each will require different approaches and need to involve relevant actors, from government bodies to the local community.

Circularity can seem a hard to reach goal, but starting the journey is the first step to achieving it. PRD can provide support to:

  • understand the specific challenges of a place to transition to circularity
  • identify where the circular potential lies
  • define a circular vision and the pathways to achieve it

If we rely on the collective benefits it can bring and the strength of the networks it can create, circular economy provides a way of living that generates a happier Earth, a more united society, and ultimately more personal fulfilment.

By Carolina Eboli