What is the ‘circular economy’? Are there any two people working in sustainability that would give the same answer if asked what it means to their business, customers and supply chains? And the general public? Could the average person on the street even begin to define it?
‘Circular economy’ is a term that’s used a lot these days – all the more so since the advent of global challenges like China’s ‘National Sword’ policy. Images showing mountains of used bottles, cans and containers have put the pressure on big brands to show that they’re doing something to reduce their dependence on single-use packaging, or to take responsibility for where those items end up once the consumer is finished with them.
Because circular economy is all about recycling, right? And using recycled content in the production of new stuff? Wrong! Well… sort of…
We only have one planet, and finite physical resources, so getting away from the “take, make, dispose” model is vital, but the flow of materials in the economy is only part of the circular economy story. For example, using recycled materials in production isn’t quite so helpful if it leads to a significant increase in the amount of energy used compared to the use of virgin content. Likewise, if the recycling process for a material leads to the release of toxic pollutants into rivers and oceans, is that something that we should be aiming for?
The truth is that the circular economy is really a different way of saying that we should be focusing on life-cycle thinking right across the economy. It’s not just about the kinds of materials used in production or construction, or even making sure we have a plan for them at the end of their lives. It’s about reducing waste throughout those supply chains, creating products and assets that have a longer life-span, ensuring that they’re efficient/low carbon in their operation, and considering trade-offs between those areas.
If that all sounds complicated, the upside is that it means that companies are often further along the circular economy path than they might think. When most sustainability professionals think about companies with a good circular economy story, they’ll reel off examples like Interface’s take-back scheme, Downer’s recycled road materials , or IKEA’s recent take-back scheme But if you think more broadly than just closing the loop on materials, every company that is working to reduce emissions, reduce waste, cut pollution or procure sustainably is ticking one or more of the boxes we need to tick to create a circular economy.
While that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve collectively got a long way to go, it does hopefully make the challenge feel a little less daunting. We all know that the first step on a new journey is often the hardest, but what if we find we’re already a little way down the road and that there are others who can collaborate with us to achieve better outcomes along the way?
That outlook is why, in part, Edge Environment created the Circularity Tool for manufacturers. The tool is designed to help companies get a simple picture of where they’re doing well and where they have opportunity to go much further as they become more circular in their business models. Hopefully it helps demystify the concept of the circular economy, and proves that most of us have something positive to build on.