The sky’s the limit for the circular economy

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On the 30th March, the first ‘second-hand’ rocket was launched into our skies. Rockets – like many products in our current economy – are traditionally one-use only items. They are made, used and, with their mission complete, discarded. SpaceX have made history by finding a way for their boosters to return safely to Earth to be used again. Through this new approach, rockets can return to the skies again.

SpaceX is just one in a growing line of businesses – including Maersk, Rolls Royce and Caterpillar –  embracing a new way of thinking about the world: the circular economy. Our current way of doing things  is primarily linear; products – from rockets to mobile phones – are made, used, and thrown away at the end of their life (or when we just don’t want them anymore). At this point, all the energy, materials and water used to make them are thrown away too. A circular economy, by contrast, keeps resources in use for as long as possible. Products are designed to last, to be reused, repaired or rebuilt when parts break. They can be safely dismantled and their components reused. Nothing is wasted in a circular economy.

Circular approaches save companies money; one reason that “businesses that work on the basis of circular principles are amongst the fastest growing in the economy”, according to McKinsey’s Dr Martin Stuchtey. They also create jobs because though they are resource efficient, they are labour intensive, with the potential to “help address the global job gap of 600 million” according to Dominic Waughray from the World Economic Forum. Circular practices also need less energy, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. Manufacturing can be a polluting process; making fewer new things from scratch reduces the amount of pollution created

Whilst circular practices are beginning to be embraced in high-income countries – exemplified by the recent announcement of London’s £50 million circular economy business plan – the discourse has to-date not tapped into the circular economy’s full potential.

This was the basis for a circular economy launch of a different kind much closer to home: the parliamentary launch of the Tearfund and the Institute of Development Studies report, Virtuous Circle: How the circular economy can create jobs and save lives in low and middle-income countries (pdf) on the 21st March. Joanne Green, Tearfund’s Senior Policy Associate, provided the context for the report; over recent decades, there has been incredible progress in reducing poverty, but it has come at a cost to the natural environment. The more we succeed in economic development, the more we fail on damage to the natural world; this approach could undo progress made and push millions more people into greater vulnerability.

The circular economy offers us a way to – in the words of Jeremy Lefroy MP – “make a virtue of necessity”, by not only addressing this environmental problem, but also creating jobs and saving lives at the same time. Indeed, the circular economy offers a triple win for low- and middle-income countries:

  1. Boosting and creating jobs: the circular economy creates more jobs, often in highly skilled areas such as remanufacturing, repair and high-tech recycling. It also has the potential to create safer, better paid jobs for the millions of people already informally working as waste pickers.
  2. Saving lives: at present, approximately nine million people die every year as a result of the mismanagement of waste and pollutants. That’s twenty times more than die of malaria. Reducing waste would improve the health of those living and working around waste, and it would reduce the sulphur dioxide and other emissions that trouble cities in the developing world.
  3. Respecting our natural environment: a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that India’s greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 44% by 2050 if it adopted a circular approach. Circular principles can mitigate climate change and keep valuable resources in the system so we can do more with what we have.

There are already examples of circular practices in low- and middle-income countries, as profiled in the 4-minute Tearfund film ‘How waste can save lives and create jobs’ and outlined by Dr Patrick Schröder from the Institute of Development Studies. The challenge is to accelerate and scale up the transition.

As the UK redefines its position on the international stage, it has an opportunity to embrace and champion circular economy approaches at home and overseas. SystemiQ Associate Ben Dixon highlighted that a system-wide approach like the circular economy needs multiple actors. There are roles for government, business, and civil society to play in mainstreaming the circular economy.

The launches of the last month mark what is hopefully just the beginning. Reusing rockets won’t just save the industry money; circular principles open up new possibilities for space exploration. They also open up a new pathway for development: creating jobs without the traditional cost to nature. When it comes to the circular economy, not even the sky is the limit.
This article originally appeared on the Bright Blue Blog.

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  1. […] aims to answer just that question. We’ve explored in previous posts (in particular here, here and here) how the current approach to resources is creating mountains of waste, which are harming some of […]

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