GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES: CAN WE ACHIEVE A MORE SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY?
A new emphasis on the Circular Economy is beginning to arise. It can start to provide answers for a world faced with rising prices for energy and raw materials, along with pressure from regulators and environmentalists, and most importantly, provide solutions for the ecological constraints of our planet.
A Circular Economy is one where products and resources are kept for as long as possible and the maximum value is extracted from them whilst in use. The materials are then recycled, reused and regenerated at the end of the products life span.
It is an alternative to the traditional linear economic model that has formed a basis of our current production and consumption patterns, whereby products are made and after its use waste is created. In a circular model, this waste then goes on to be recycled and become a resource to reuse in the production process.
Some initiatives are already being applied to countries to try and make their economies more circular. In Kenya, farmers use cow dung to produce biogas for home cooking and fertiliser for their coffee plants. On a larger scale, fashion business H&M has been taking back clothes worldwide since 2013, and either sells them for reuse in poor countries or recycles them into a variety of products (including car seats, insulation and stuffed toys).
Becoming more circular also includes minimizing all non-recyclable waste – such as plastics and disposable coffee cups. Numerous plans have been put in place to curb plastic use in the UK and Manchester, following the publication of the Government’s 25-Year Environmental plan. The BBC has pledged to ban single use plastics by 2020 and the John Lewis Partnership has committed to divert 100% of its waste from landfill by 2021, as well as achieving a 100% closed-loop recycling of cardboard, plastic and glass, in that same time frame.
Circular economies not only provide ecological and social benefits, but economic ones too. According to an analysis by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey & Co. and the World Economic Forum, the transition to a Circular Economy could generate savings of more than $1 trillion in materials alone by 2020.
Furthermore, prices for oil and energy have more than quintupled since 1998, metal prices have tripled, and food prices have risen 75 percent since that time. Businesses have the opportunity to take advantage of these rising costs by switching to a more sustainable, circular model.
Recently, SEEG (the Sustainable and Ethical Enterprise Group) hosted a Circular Economy workshop at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Professor Callum Thomas and Professor Frank Boons discussed 'The Challenges of Transitioning from the Linear Economic Model to the Circular Economy' and 'Reflections on Economies: Linear and Circular' respectively.
Professor Callum Thomas outlined how the current linear economic model and patterns of consumption and production are unsustainable. Embracing the Circular Economy foundations will help to provide a more sustainable manufacturing sector.
We discussed ideas on how Manchester can take action to strive towards a Circular Economy. Addressing patterns of production and consumption, product design, establishing new, more sustainable business models and returning waste into product cycles were considered starting points.
Thomas stressed that the scale of change is substantial and cannot be achieved by Government alone. Collaborative engagement across key economic sectors is required and sharing of existing innovations across sectors will be critical in its success.
The Circular Economy Club Manchester (CEC) was launched to share such innovations. The CEC has the support of the GM Combined Waste and Recycling Authority and provides an ideal opportunity to show case Circular Economy initiatives.
Similarly, ‘Waste 2 Resource Innovation Network’ (W2RIN) brings together academic expertise and practical waste management expertise, from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at MMU, working to support the transition to a Circular Economy.
Professor Frank Boons scrutinized the sustainability of the circular model and examined the disparity in both the circular and linear economies. He explained how despite the production of cars and other vehicles still growing worldwide, the automobile industry is close to being circular. In Europe, nearly 8 million cars are recycled annually, and that number is rising. Although at first inspection that seems positive, it could signify a greater production of cars in the first place.
This suggests that circular economy activities can actually increase overall primary production rather than halt it, partially offsetting its benefits. This ‘rebound effect’ could actually be quite damaging for the environment, especially in terms of cars, whereby they emit greenhouse gases in their ‘use phase’.
The Circular Economy isn’t a magical fix for our environmental woes. To truly flourish, the Circular Economy needs to be part of a bigger effort to tackle economic growth, climate change and wasteful consumerism. Nevertheless, exploring the Circular Economy in greater depth is an opportunity for Greater Manchester. Theoretically, in a world where everything could be a resource for something else, economic growth would be separated from environmental restraints. Businesses would prosper whilst reducing costs and pollution, and an increase in the consumption of goods wouldn’t increase waste – it’s a win-win.