Going circular in Finland

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Joanne Green, Senior Policy Associate at Tearfund, reflects on her trip to the first World Circular Economy Forum in Finland. 

This week I attended the first ever World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) generously hosted for free by the Finnish Government in Helsinki. For those who are unfamiliar, the circular economy is a new approach to economic development that recognises biophysical limits by using resources as efficiently as possible in every stage of a product lifecycle. For more info see here.

The circular economy is seen as quite an exciting, cutting edge area, especially in business circles.  Early adopters see potential competitive advantages to be gained in brand value whilst the savings, resource security and productivity gains to be made make business sense.  Enthusiasts talk about the disruptive innovation of new technologies, such as 3D printing, to transform economies into circular systems.  As well as all the excitement and innovation, speakers and participants are sober about the enormity of the challenges as the world rapidly breaches its ecological limits.

The WCEF has been quite unlike any other conference I have attended, it’s been much more creative and dynamic. It’s been refreshing and encouraging to hear about the way some multinationals are innovating and, what is more, sharing those innovations, junking their intellectual property rights for a wider purpose.  

Tearfund has entered this arena motivated by the knowledge that environmental change impacts people in poverty the hardest, but also because we believe that the circular economy offers great potential benefits to developing countries where circular practices are more widespread through necessity.  Developing countries could leapfrog linear development (a take, make, dispose economy) to circular approaches which would create more jobs, improve health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The burgeoning waste problem in many developing country cities is an obvious entry point. On the first day of the conference, Kenya’s Environment Secretary Alice Kaudia outlined the new target her government has set to reduce the waste going to landfill by 80% by 2050 and their recent decision to outlaw plastic bags.  We also heard from social entrepreneur Olufunto Boroffice, founder of Chanja Datti a recycling company based in Abuja, Nigeria, about the empowering impact a secure job and income had had for women suffering domestic violence.  

However, given the short length of the conference many of the discussions and presentations really only touched the surface of the issues involved. The Finnish Government have indicated they will host another WCEF in 2019, if not before. In future meetings there could be much more participation and focus on the potential benefits and challenges developing countries face in implementing the circular economy.  We also cannot ignore the need for a fundamental change in social norms and values that underly the current take, make, dispose approach if the circular economy is to take off beyond Finland.

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