What does it take to go circular?

Responsible Use of Natural Resources 6 November 2017 Björn Appelqvist

How can we re-make and re-think the products of today into something more sustainable and circular?

Expert columns
8 mins

This article was featured on International Solid Waste Association's (ISWA) presidential blog november 6, 2017.

How can we re-make and re-think the products of today into something more sustainable and circular? These were some of the questions we asked ourselves in ISWA in 2015 after having finalised our six-volume report on waste management and the circular economy.

One of the key messages of our report was that all actors throughout the value chain have to work together to create change. To investigate further, we gathered a group of manufacturers, designers and waste managers around two specific and tangible cases: jeans and plastic packaging. 

The idea was to try to see what new solutions and innovations could be developed by bringing these actors together, and to illustrate that we are stronger working together than separately. Since we were trying to explore what we could achieve together, we did not focus on policy issues – not because policy cannot be a powerful change enabler, but because focusing on policy has a tendency to shift responsibility from ourselves to someone else. 

What did we find out? We came up with five overall recommendations for manufacturers wanting to go circular, and matched them with five commitments from the waste management sector to support that movement. You can find them here

Demand

The concept of the circular economy was created in a time of booming material prices. It was thought that rising material value alone would be enough to drive the circular economy. However, material and oil prices have since fallen and material value alone is not a sufficient driver. 

The concept of the circular economy stayed with us, however, with progress driven mainly by policy induced supply rather than market driven demand - this is particularly true for fast-moving consumer goods and packaging. Recovery targets for household waste and landfill reduction targets are both examples of such supply-driving policy instruments. 

Sustainable circular economy cannot be realised without strong and sustained demand. Supply of recycled materials is useless without demand for those materials. Waiting for the global battle for energy, water and fertile farmland to drive the raw material prices to levels where sustainability will be good business in and of itself will lead to many more decades of unsustainable production and consumption, environmental degradation and human suffering. 

When prices are finally high enough to induce behaviour change, it will most probably be too late. Therefore, we need to consciously and actively create demand: demand for sustainability, demand for secondary raw materials, demand for clean energy, demand for dematerialisation and demand for longer lasting products. 

Such demand can be created by policy and law making, but also by good old-school marketing - both disciplines must be pursued simultaneously. We all have to contribute: designers, manufacturers, waste managers, environmental NGOs and policy makers, because without demand, there will be no circular economy. 

Change

To create change we have to do things differently. Going from linear to circular calls for new ways of working together throughout the value chain. All aspects of our products, businesses and ways of doing things must be open to change - even aspects of the business that seem set in stone. 

Change can be exciting, uncomfortable or scary and change can be truly disruptive, particularly if forced upon a business by a changing world, rather than actively engaged with. In the transition from the linear to the circular economy, as for all major shifts, there will be winners and losers and now is the time to choose a side. Things will change – and we have to change too.

Cooperation

To realise the circular economy, traditional value chains and the way that actors in them cooperate need to evolve. Suppliers, manufacturers, designers, wholesalers and waste managers have to find new ways to interact and cooperate. We must all really listen to the customers, while ensuring that old dogmas do not hinder new and more circular approaches. 

The designer’s tool box has proven to be very useful, but designing for the circular economy is a sustainability street battle. It is a tough task that has to be taken on product by product, service by service while trying to defend positions won from consumerism and planned obsolescence counter-attacks. And while doing so, the three pillars of sustainability and more than 7.5 billion desires and ambitions have to be fulfilled. 

It will not be easy, but together we can make it. 

Björn Appelqvist is the Chair of ISWA's Working Group on Recycling and Waste Minimisation and Department Manager, Waste Management at Ramboll Environment & Health. 

Recently Björn has led ISWA's initiatives focused on the circular economy, including a project on the barriers to sustainable waste management focusing on plastic packaging and jeans.

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