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How do we shift to a circular economy? It starts with dumping the end-of-life concept

December 17, 2021

By Dave Garner

From the waste room to the boardroom, we must think about more than just recycling

During COP26, world leaders took time to consider how we can mitigate climate change. An omission from the negotiations was consumption and resource management. For many, including myself, this was concerning. Consumption is a cornerstone of climate change.

We are living in a privileged period of human history; we are wealthier than previous generations and have access to lifestyles our ancestors did not even dream about. However, will we maintain this if we continue with our consumption levels and the linear economy model that our success is built on? I imagine most people are like me and think not. The linear economy has reached its limits. 

The circular economy makes excellent business sense, getting the most from the resources you have.

We need to evolve to a circular economy—one that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. This replaces the “end-of-life” concept with restoration. It shifts us toward the use of renewable energy and eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse. It’s aim: the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and business models.

The nine Rs for material management

When I first started my career, there were three Rs used in industry: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In a circular economy there are nine Rs, and the focus is shifted to the very top of the waste hierarchy—prevention and minimization. This reflects how the circular economy shifts the view of product and service impacts from the bottom to the top of the decision process. It goes from the waste room to the boardroom.

From the most preferred option to the least, the nine Rs descend in the order below:

  • Refuse: Refuse a product
  • Rethink: Make products more intensive (e.g., sharing, multifunctional products) or offer the same function with a radically different product
  • Reduce: Increase efficiency of manufacture
  • Reuse: By another consumer
  • Repair: Repair and maintenance
  • Refurbish: Restore an old product and bring it up to date
  • Remanufacture: Use parts of a discarded product in a new product with the same function
  • Repurpose: Use parts of a discarded product in a new product with different function
  • Recycle: Process materials to obtain same (high grade) or lower (low grade) quality
  • Recover: Incineration with energy recovery

Common sense and business sense

The circular economy makes excellent business sense. Getting the most from the resources you have and minimizing the resources you buy is great for cashflow and bottom line. A circular strategy enables organizations and economies to benefit from substantial net material savings, mitigation of volatility and supply risks. It provides drivers for innovation and job creation, improved land productivity and soil health, and long-term economic resilience. 

The UK Government is committed to driving economic growth in a much more efficient manner that relies less on imported and virgin material, such as young woodland.

Regulatory change in circularity is occurring at a local and national scale. In the UK, England’s Resource and Waste Strategy, the new Environment Act, and UK Circular Economy Package all identify actions to facilitate change. The Greater London Authority now requires a Circular Economy Statement from major developments, a move likely to be replicated.

Help, not a hindrance

Organizations need to embrace this as an opportunity and not a barrier. Decisions on materials need to be shifted from the end of a project to the beginning, to be reviewed at key milestones, and to have buy-in from the top down. Changing to a circular model is a challenge for all. It will take time, expertise, and conviction to achieve. However, there are significant benefits for all.

As my US colleague Arthur Umble wrote, we must have a viable market for recovered resources. In the US, a barrier in all avenues of recycling is that there is very little policy or regulatory oversight of recycled product quality and standards. This affects value, and when value is diminished, markets either disappear or never emerge. Without regulatory oversight, it’s also hard to promote a viable supply chain to stabilize markets. Without viable markets, the incentives to reclaim or reuse fall away.

In the UK and EU, there are more consistent regulatory frameworks for respective supply chains, and now the regions can close the loops in a more coordinated manner.

Our organizations need to consider the incoming circular model on activities, ensuring development with it, achieving the benefits, and minimizing the risks. Shifting to a circular model will enable economic growth while restoring and regenerating all available types of capital (financial, human, social, and natural). Success will create organizations and an economy that will support a better world than we have today, a legacy to be truly proud of!

Leading by example

On a personal note, 10 years ago my wife and I started our mobile device buyback, repair, and reuse business. Our business identified a gap in the market where companies replaced mobile devices on a faster cycle than the expected life of the asset but did not have any system in place for end-of-use management.

We provided a simple and easy method to manage old devices in a data secure, legally compliant, and best environmental outcome way. Assets were tested and graded providing a value estimate, and we then provided an offer for their purchase. The client had the option of donating the value of the assets to a charity or retaining the value. Once purchased, devices were cleaned or repaired or refurbished and sold for reuse. Obsolete or unrepairable devices were recycled.

When we approached clients, we led with the financial, data security, social, and environmental benefits, in this order. To enable clients to successfully embrace circularity, we should support and encourage them to adopt a similar order. 

Shifting to a circular model will enable economic growth while restoring and regenerating all available types of capital.

The UK Government is increasingly committed to driving economic growth in a much more efficient manner that relies less on imported and virgin material. Moving toward a more circular economy can contribute to this and is essential for future growth, increased resilience, and environmental and human health.

It’s critical that we look at every project as an opportunity to restore and think about the circular economy.

In a traditional sense, the Redbridge Recycling Transfer Station in Oxford is all about circular. First, the project is located on an old landfill. That, in essence, recycles the site. Secondly, the new transfer station provides financial and environmental efficiencies for recycling—a win-win. While this may not be at the top of the circular hierarchy it is an essential part to achieving a circular economy.

Thinking more deeply about pulling useful products from waste, consider the Scottish Water Bioresources Strategy, which reviewed the national sludge strategy from 2006. The new bioresources strategy defines sustainable wastewater and water sludge management for the next two decades. It also includes regional and national bioresource treatment and recycling options. This has been further developed with some insightful work into the opportunities for value recovery from wastes derived from wastewater—helping understand the business case for deploying technologies across a range of sites. 

At Layden House, the retention and reuse of existing structure created a high-quality office at a low carbon cost.

We also must view older buildings as something to keep and improve, not simply tear down and replace. For Layden House in London, our engineering team supported the refurbishment of the 1970s building with redesign of all mechanical and electrical services and replacing the façade.  

Developers need an early focus on waste and recycling provisions, especially in high-density urban areas. Waiting only complicates the process. We’ve completed numerous Circular Economy Statements for developers in London, working with commercial units, high-density residential developments, and significant urban extensions. One of our research projects was for the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA). Working with CIRIA, the goal is to give designers or planners a better understanding of their soil-management options, thereby reducing the generation of surplus soils. Remember the nine Rs? If we “Refuse” to create surplus soils, we’re starting at the very top of the circular economy. 

Choosing to complete the circle

The choices we make are essential to our future. Whether it’s diverting biodegradable waste from the landfill, extracting phosphorus—a fundamental ingredient in every living cell—from wastewater to recover it for agricultural fertilizer, or turning an obsolete medical campus into housing—the circular economy is our future. 

We must prolong the lives of the materials and goods that we use, moving society away from the current inefficient linear economic model. Wherever we can, we should focus on circular—recovering and regenerating products and materials, giving them a continuous lease of life.

  • Dave Garner

    Dave is a business advisor and consultant focusing on resource management and the development of a circular economy. His waste management strategy leadership has been applied in the UK, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

    Contact Dave
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