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Becoming more circular will take straight talking

The turn of the year is a time when many people reflect on the changes they would like to make to secure a more fulfilling and prosperous future.

During 2015 I’d challenge the business and public sectors to do the same – but instead consider how they could improve the sustainability and financial performance of their operations through a fundamental shift in approach.

I’m talking about how businesses could introduce more ‘circularity’, and how public sector services could support them in achieving this. The aim: to move us away from the ‘make-take-dispose’ models we currently operate to ones that eliminate waste at every stage.

It’s a big concept; but it brings with it big rewards both economically and environmentally.

In its 2014 report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey said the wider economic gain from materials savings alone in a more circular economy was estimated at over $1tn (£661,000m) each year, and could create 100,000 new jobs globally within the next five years.

Indeed, the ‘Employment and the Circular Economy’ report published by WRAP and Green Alliance last month confirmed there is a net economic and employment gain to be had because finished products are worth more than the raw materials they are composed of. For example, a reused iPhone keeps around 48% of its original value, but as recyclate it’s worth just 0.24%. And remanufacturing – rebuilding, repairing, and restoring items to meet or exceed the original spec – saves at least 70% of the materials required to make new goods.

At the event held to mark the launch of this report, one of the circular economy’s pioneers, Walter Stahel, said there were huge opportunities for business as potential profits from a remanufacturing plant could be five times that of a manufacturing plant.

The case for adopting this practice is clear, the process simple, the financials compelling, the jobs tantalising. But the uptake, while improving, is still limited.

Local authorities and waste management companies have a significant role to play in this evolution by redesigning core services to encompass not just recycling but reuse, refurbishment and repair programmes.

This could secure a new revenue stream that could outweigh the cost of changes to services. Green Alliance examined resource recovery systems last year and estimated £1.7bn more value could be captured just through joining up waste management activities across councils.

For materials like plastics and waste electronics in particular, it says, collaboration across many local authorities would provide UK refurbishers and reprocessors with a secure supply of the quality feedstock they need, helping confidence across the whole waste management supply chain.

So if we resolve to embrace a more circular future, where do we start? Well we can’t reuse, remanufacture or recycle products unless we are gathering enough of the right quality materials in the first place, yet the amount of quality recyclate we collect from households continues to be a challenge.

WRAP’s Barriers to Recycling report, published in December, shows that confusion around what can be recycled and how to recycle leads to contamination.

These are challenges which councils and waste management companies can help residents overcome by providing clear, simple messages about what can be recycled locally. And to help austerity-hit local authorities address these and the other issues in the report, WRAP is planning a major revamp of its Recycle Now campaign in 2015.

As soon as more quality recyclate is in the system, there is considerable opportunity to generate additional income to feed further activities.

We know from our research into clothing that a third of all clothes we buy (350,000 tonnes) currently goes to landfill in the UK. If reused or recycled by charities or local authorities it would be worth around £140m. Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association, said on the back of the Employment and the Circular Economy report that minimising the amount of good quality clothing going to landfill and incineration could create up to 6,000 jobs across the industry, resulting in increased revenue and decreasing pressure on natural resources as extending the average life of clothes by just three months would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.

That ‘making the most of what we own’ mantra and addressing how we make clothes in the first place are the focus of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. With many of the leading retailers, clothing designers and reuse and charity organisations already on board we know there is a desire to adopt the circular approach. The focus now needs to be embedding the practices and I look forward to seeing some real innovation during 2015.

So, to me, aspiring to a more circular future is a worthwhile resolution. As the well-known quote by Lewis E Pierson on business and choice goes: “Business is like a man rowing a boat upstream. He has no choice; he must go ahead or he will go back.” 

Marcus Gover is WRAP’s director


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