Actions for companies to take for a circular economy

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme (RRfW) has been working to develop a shared vision for the transition to circular economy, bringing in perspectives from academia, government and industry.

The results of our engagement with industries interested in UK resource and waste management are now available as a new report. This identifies key actions for industry to take to help realise a circular economy, but it also highlights the need for government to act to remove numerous barriers preventing industry from moving towards a circular economy.

The current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy is leading to unsustainable depletion of natural resources and ever-increasing quantities of waste and pollution. However, transition to a ‘closed-loop’ circular economy, in which wastes are effectively eliminated, requires a radical rethink of our current resource and waste systems. While adoption of circular economy principles is given as an objective by many industrial companies, the circularity of the global economy is still in its infancy. More concerted action is needed to speed up the transition to the circular economy.

To understand the industry perspective on what a transition to a circular economy should look like and their role in it, we first asked companies to describe what the waste and resource management landscape would ideally look like in the next 30 years, what the key barriers and drivers were to getting there, and what actions were necessary and who should be doing them. The importance of the proposed changes, drivers and barriers were then quantified via an online survey, which also offered space to add further action points for actors across society.

The industrial view on the future changes that are required aligned well with our previous work with academia and government. The most important changes envisioned were to:

  • Embed design for durability, reuse and recyclability into supply chains
  • Change behaviour of the general public through education
  • Redefine progress to take a holistic, multi-dimensional (i.e. wider than financial) approach to evaluating costs and benefits of proposed actions
  • Increase resource productivity

Based the priorities identified by industry, combined with the barriers and drivers, a list of six actions was identified for industry. In order of importance, these were:

  1. Embedding extended producer responsibility into corporate social responsibility policy.
  2. Contribute to policy development, especially by providing data on stocks and flows of primary and secondary resources.
  3. Design products and materials to enable them to retain their economic, technical, social and environmental value as long as possible i.e. prioritise resource productivity.
  4. Innovate to increase resource security, e.g. by using secondary resources or finding higher-value outlets for unavoidable wastes.
  5. Innovate business models to embed circular economy within companies.
  6. Promote behaviour change by educating staff and consumers about resource recovery.

Although industry can take a lead in the transition towards a circular economy, their actions must be harmonised with changes that are controlled by other actors in society. Industry identified a wide range of barriers to action that were seen as almost equally important, and strikingly almost all of these were associated with governance and regulation. Industry was clear that it was the government’s job to remove these medium to long-term barriers by providing a clear long-term government vision and strategy, improved regulation, innovation support, and investment.

Industry also saw a role for academia in the transition to a circular economy by undertaking radical blue-sky research necessary to deliver breakthrough changes. However, fundamental-, applied- and industry research need to be better linked in order to translate such breakthroughs through to the commercialisation stages and beyond.

This article is based on the following report:
Velenturf, A.P.M., Purnell, P. (2018) Delivering Radical Change in Waste and Resource Management: Industry Priorities. Resource Recovery from Waste. Published online September 2018.

The report forms part of a series of articles on co-producing a vision and approach for the transition towards a Circular Economy. Previous papers include perspectives from academic and government. A final article integrating all of these perspective is in development.

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