The quest for a Circular Economy – business as usual but with a bit more recycling?

Wales, my adopted nation, is world-leading at recycling, with 2018-19 figures suggesting 64% of household waste was recycled. This is certainly something to be proud of, and it’s something that the Welsh Government and all Welsh councils have been striving towards for a number of years. However, we need to do better; if we are interested in achieving a circular economy, high tonnages of material going to recycling each year is an indicator of system failure rather than success.

Let that sink in for a moment. Recycling is a sign of failure.

Most people have heard of the waste hierarchy; reduce, reuse, recycle. There are other versions of it, with more R’s (the most I’ve seen being 9 R’s: refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, recycle, recover, as discussed here), but in essence, it gives us a priority order for how to manage material. The key thing to note in all these hierarchies is how low a priority recycling is. We should do everything we can not to need to recycle things; if material has got as far as your bin (whether it’s a recycling bin or otherwise), then something is amiss. So whilst Wales has an excellent record for the percentage of household waste that is recycled, the problem we are yet to solve is the total amount of material reaching its end of life in the first place (i.e. our success at higher priorities in the waste hierarchy). And on this, Wales has made no progress; household waste generation is not decreasing, as seen in the figure below.

Local Authority Municipal Waste in Wales. We can see that the total waste generated is not decreasing. Reuse/recycling/composting is creeping up, but the most significant trend is for a decrease in landfill in favour of energy from waste plants. Data from Waste Data Flow, statswales.

The Welsh Government is currently consulting on a strategy entitled “Beyond Recycling. A strategy to make the circular economy in Wales a reality” (available here). But what exactly is a circular economy and how does recycling fit into it?

What do we mean by a circular economy?

A circular economy is…. an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a close-loop system, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. (from Wikipedia).

As is usually the case, some academics have geeked out over the detail, so there is a very scholarly comparative analysis of 114 definitions here (yes, really!). As the authors point out, the lack of coalescence around a commonly agreed definition may well lead to conceptual deadlock and the devaluing of the concept, but in the mean time, it’s perhaps worth analysing a bit more.

The first thing to bear in mind that a circular economy is a physical impossibility (discussed here). Entropy and dissipation of energy are inevitable, so we are always going to need inputs from the environment to replace any leakage out of the material system. Is it worth striving towards a theoretical construct that we know we can’t reach? Opinions differ on this, but the fact that a Circular Economy is a physical impossibility does at least make it relatively easy to spot people who’ve failed to think about the basics. The related concept of ‘one planet living’ is perhaps a helpful way of thinking about the circular economy, simply by expanding the circle to include the environment. Unless we’re proposing mining space, we have a single planet, and we have to respect physical boundaries and the implications of that. Those implications include availability of physical resources, their rate of replenishment, the fate of any waste products we release into the environment, and the capacity of the environment to deal with them. We need to consider these issues both in terms of absolute quantities, but also with regard to time frames and spatial constraints. In this regard, the expanded version of a circular economy concept is a potential way to take the somewhat intangible aims of ‘sustainable development’ and turn it into something measurable.

The Circular Economy Concept. From here.

Does the concept of zero waste help us?

Alongside the circular economy, another major aspect of government policies in this area, including that of Welsh Government, is ‘zero waste’; the idea that 100% of material reaching end of life should be recycled or recovered in some way. This is ok as a generalised aim, but the law of diminishing returns will apply; we should not strive to recycle the last gram of highly contaminated plastic when we could put it in a landfill site without causing significant environmental cost. As discussed above in relation to one planet living, we also need to recognise that from an environmental perspective, flows out of the material/economic system and into the environment are not necessarily problematic, as long as they don’t exceed planetary boundaries.

The concept of zero waste is helpful in another way though; if we are processing materials in a way in which causes them to become something that is then being regarded as waste, this is a sign that we have a poorly designed product in the first place; it demonstrates a lack of systems thinking. We have to design products with their fate in mind, and in the vast majority of cases, this should be a new product. So whilst we can strive to reduce waste to relatively close to zero, this should be a baseline expectation. The risk of making zero waste a prominent policy aim is that it immediately brings waste management to the forefront, and for the majority of people, the answer to waste is seen to be recycling. Redesigning waste management systems is a MASSIVE distraction from the challenge of redesigning the production system. If we were trying to achieve a circular economy it would be more useful to think about the START of the production chain, and work from there.

How did we get here?

Our obsession with the end of pipe solution that is waste management is longstanding, and is fixed by environmental regulations. These start from worthy aims of trying to prevent environmental pollution, and in many regards, they do a pretty good job of this; developed societies are in most cases managing waste in some shape or form rather than simply discarding everything into the environment (notwithstanding the shameful practice of simply sending our waste overseas for reprocessing). This end of pipe solution is an ideal situation for manufacturing companies; moves towards producer responsibility are painfully slow, and in practice manufacturers have no responsibility for how difficult, dangerous or polluting their products are at the end of life, and whats more they have no incentive to produce less stuff in the first place. The burdens are shouldered by the public sector, who have statutory requirements to dispose of waste safely. And since waste management services are largely contracted out to the private sector, it’s in their interest for the process to be as difficult and expensive as possible.

Business as usual – a bit more recycling and a lot more greenwash

A significant challenge for governments and policy makers interested in the circular economy is the extent to which it is being subverted by companies looking to continue business as usual, with recycling as a thinly veiled distraction. A central tenet of a Circular Economy is that it will be easier to achieve if we consume less; the less material we produce, the easier it would be to meet this production with material that had reached end of life. Selling us less stuff is obviously not a popular idea with companies. Concepts such as designing for longevity, repurposing and reparing objects would also present massive challenges to business models; if you are in the business of making toasters, you are dependent on people needing to buy new ones, so you have no incentive to design for longevity or make spare parts available. A Circular Economy doesn’t sit well with companies (or governments) whose success is predicated on us being obliging consumers. Indeed a circular economy is the very antithesis of the convenience culture we have become addicted to, as discussed here. The result is that a worryingly high proportion of discussions about the Circular Economy within communities of practitioners and policy makers revolve around recycling and waste management. Is this ignorance or deliberate subversion?

What might a (more) Circular Economy look like?

When I was a child, my brother and I had a sack of lego. We endlessly built, modified, disassembled and rebuilt it into all manner of objects. Small amounts of new lego entered the system (e.g. at Christmas or birthdays), and small quantities leaked out of the system (this was a mystery to me as a child, but my guess is they got lost in the vacuum cleaner or washing machine). Some lego pieces we had lots of, other shapes were more prized. We made decisions about how to design our objects to make use of these resources. We recognised the physical limits of the system. When we talk about one planet living, or a circular economy, we are talking about a society that has this sack of lego.  

If we knew that main source of raw materials was objects that had reached the end of a previous life, plus small amounts of materials that could be sustainably extracted from the environment, product designers would need a radical rethink; the pallette of materials becomes much more limited, and the way that they are processed and assembled changes drastically. Objects in use are ‘material banks’; collections of sub-components that are in effect our library for future use. We would establish an inventory of components, together with a means of gauging when they will be re-available for re-assembly into new objects (e.g. when an existing assembly is no longer fit for purpose and needs rebuilding). In practice, the rate of production of new objects would have to plummet; if we see our economy as stocks and flows, there is a considerable time lag in the system in the form of objects that are in the economy (as a stock) and are not being disposed of (as a flow) and this would severely curtail any move towards a Circular Economy.

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.

Victor Papenek

The Circular Economy presents a major challenge to our individual psyche as well as to manufacturers. Since the rate of production plummets, we might well ‘own’ far fewer things. We wouldn’t just have local libraries of books, but would have similar hubs for a whole multitude of things that we currently own, whether it is lawnmowers, household tools, clothes, leisure goods and vehicles. Even the objects that we do ‘own’, stop really being ours; we are just temporary custodians of various assemblies of materials, which are full of history of previous lives, and will go on to be looked after by others in the future. Fostering a culture of responsibility to look after objects that don’t really belong to us will require us to break the link between value and ownership.

What does this mean for strategy?

Returning to policy and pragmatism, is the Welsh Government on the right track with this strategy? Based on the document that’s out for consultation, it would seem not. In many ways, the Welsh Government is highly progressive and forward thinking. It’s entirely possible that there is good work going on behind the scenes to develop metrics and policies that would move Wales towards a circular economy, but for a strategy that claims to be going ‘beyond’ recycling, there’s a remarkably big emphasis on recycling. Allowing the end of life treatment of materials to dominate debate is a distraction. As discussed above, the challenge of a circular economy is that it requires us to redesign our entire approach to production and use of objects. We can’t simply drop poor quality recyclate into existing design and manufacturing infrastructures. This is a time sensitive issue; the design life and/or payback period of this infrastructure is often in excess of 20 years, by which time our economy should be approaching net-zero carbon. If we were serious about trying to make our economy more circular, we would not have on the market any products for which we do not have the infrastructure to remanufacture within the system. This isn’t simply designing for disassembly, it’s about ensuring that the infrastructure, labour and distribution systems that would do the disassembly, categorise and refashion components and put them back into the system are all in place. In this regard, ‘human centred design’ goes a long way towards achieving the goals of a circular economy, as discussed by Don Norman here and here.

So what can I do?

In contrast to the difficulties that policy makers have in incentivising circularity, the role of the individual in a circular economy is pretty simple. Buy less stuff. It matters not one bit how many environmental credentials the product you’re buying has if it was something that you didn’t need in the first place. Obviously this is the opposite of what the government and businesses would want us to do, and across the board we see policies designed to fuel a growth in consumption and ownership whilst making us feel good about it. So for example, there’s been a 5-6 fold increase in the number of coffee shops in the UK since the year 2000 and this translates into approximately 5 billion disposable coffee cups. But rather than questioning whether we really need so much coffee on the go, businesses are falling over themselves to sell us the idea of reusable cups and compostable packaging. Meanwhile, there are more televisions and mobile phones than people in the UK. The answer to this? Government statisticians earnestly reporting the amount of energy an appliance or a charging device uses in standby mode.

Whatever you make of the idea of a circular economy, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, and the scope for virtuous circles is relatively limited. We are being sold the idea that we can consume our way out of a problem that is caused by consumption. This is a fundamentally stupid idea and we need to stop.

Postscript: I’m trying, not very successfully, to write shorter blog posts. The most coherent and robust approaches to the circular economy are based on Materials Flow Analysis, which I didn’t get round to discussing in this post. It’s a subject I will come back to!

Related posts: The Carbon Footprint of Production, first published in Clean Slate. And a really brief one recycling and climate change – why every little doesn’t help.

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