The waste that creates disease can save lives instead

photo-1-circular-economy-tearfund

Staff from across Tearfund teams gathered recently to discuss how using resources differently can create jobs, reduce waste and and the associated health problems. The circular economy is a new way to think about how we use products and services. In our linear economy, we take natural resources, make items, use them, then throw them away when we’re done with them. The circular economy instead keeps resources in use for as long as possible. As outlined in Tearfund’s recent policy report, Virtuous Circle, this can save lives (around 9 million people die of diseases linked to mismanagement of waste and pollutants every year) and create job opportunities.

There are already examples of this in practice. In Brazil, Tearfund partner Diaconia has facilitated the provision of technology for small-scale farmers to use to convert animal waste into cooking gas and nutrient-rich fertiliser. This means they can improve their incomes and it prevents emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas contributing to climate change). The waste that creates disease can instead make jobs. This is one example of where the circular economy already exists, but the opportunities to design for it and scale it up are huge. This gathering was a chance to discuss this further. The major themes from the discussion were:

Most people know about recycling, but the circular economy is something new. The idea of the ‘3Rs’ (reduce, reuse, recycle) is familiar to most people now. The circular economy brings in ideas around sharing (think Spotify – instead of owning the music, you pay to access it) and encourages the design stage of products to anticipate and plan for them to be repaired or their parts recycled.

North-south collaboration is key. Products designed for the Northern market often end up in low or middle income countries but aren’t intended to be deconstructed, which can harm people’s health when they do so. If products can be designed to be repaired or taken apart, this reduce the 9 million deaths every year from mismanagement of waste and pollutants. There is also a need to stop built-in redundancy in products; this is where policy change and lobbying comes in.

There is great potential if the circular economy is embraced on a national level. If governments, donors like DFID, multilateral banks and international agencies invest in this on a national level, the impact on jobs, health and the environment could be huge. As a new issue for the development sector there are many doors to be pushed.

Some cultural norms will need to shift. In a Southern context there is more of a culture of repair. The challenge is not to lose this as nations develop. Historically development is associated with a shift to a more linear economy; the circular economy is an opportunity to enable development without the usual increase in resource use and creation of more waste.

In developed nations, businesses are already leading the way in this, for example Maersk, Rolls Royce, and H&M have already recognised the benefits of the circular economy, in huge part due to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. There is an opportunity to learn from their experiences and apply this innovation within a development context.

A remaining challenge is changing our own attitudes and habits towards stuff. Do we need to own so much stuff, or could we lease it until it breaks then goes back to the producer for repair? One third of food produced never makes it to a human stomach – can we change our own shopping habits to reduce our part in this?

The circular economy could be a huge part of the solution to poverty and waste. Changing the way that we live means we can be part of it too.

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