The concept causing the biggest stir in the resource sector at the moment is without doubt the circular economy. Every other conference and workshop appears to be attempting to untangle its various forms and guises, and understand how it might be implemented in practice. It isn’t unexpected that it should form the central theme of events such as the recent Resource conference in London or Brussels’ Green Week, but it was even on the agenda of the World Economic Forum at its annual meeting in Davos earlier this year.
The European Commission’s 7th Environmental Action Programme (7th EAP) will guide European environmental policy for the period 2014 to 2020. Its vision of the future is instructive:
“In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society”.
With the circular economy concept clearly now front and centre of thinking, what role does that leave for the waste hierarchy? Ad Lansink’s framework that has guided resource management thinking for decades receives a couple of cursory mentions in the 7th EAP, but is the circular economy about to consign his waste hierarchy to the annals of history? Is the circular economy just a makeover for good resource management practice? Is it really all that different from the waste hierarchy? And if so, is there room for them to co-exist?
Fronting the circular economy debate is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which describes the concept as follows:
“A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design… It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models”.
The waste hierarchy is set out in Article 4 of the Waste Framework Directive, which says that the following waste management approaches should be applied “as a priority order in waste prevention and management legislation and policy”:
- Preparation for reuse;
- Other recovery, e.g. energy recovery; and
If we look at what both concepts are aiming to achieve in practice there seems to be very little difference. The circular economy aims to “eliminate waste” and ensure that resources are managed sustainably in a circular fashion; the hierarchy enjoins us to try to prevent waste, and where this is not possible, to ensure that waste materials are recovered so that they can be used again. Both concepts rely on similar solutions, such as alternative business models, to achieve these ends. Clearly there is quite a lot of overlap.
The SMART money
The ‘circular economy’ concept arguably opens up a wider perspective than the waste hierarchy, embracing issues such as the use of water, land, energy, and the general sustainability of our economic system. But the price of this breadth is a concept that is more fluid, less clearly defined, and therefore open to interpretation. Complete circularity is difficult to achieve, and, so there is talk of achieving it in ‘degrees’, or making progress Towards a Circular Economy.
These ‘degrees’ or ’levels’ of circularity are as yet unarticulated, making the concept extremely flexible. Perhaps that explains the need for all the conferences and workshops on the topic! The list of companies that have signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 programme suggests that may not all be shining beacons of sustainability. Whether that’s an advantage (it draws in a broad congregation) or a disadvantage (companies can wear the badge without making substantial – or any? – change) is a moot point.
The tried and tested waste hierarchy is much simpler and clearer, and lends itself to turning its requirements into regulations that are SMART – that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound:
- There are well-established types of action that can be taken at each tier of the hierarchy.
- Performance against each tier can be measured fairly easily, with the possible exception of waste prevention, allowing indicators and targets (e.g. for increasing reuse, or boosting recycling).
- Where the preferred approach isn’t achievable, it offers straightforward alternatives.
- It instructs you to take all of the actions that are reasonable, and then stop – so there’s little danger of going too far, in the way Dan Rogerson fears the circular economy could.
- It contains an intrinsic prioritisation of actions, with a focus on the top of the hierarchy – but thanks to the ease of measuring progress, it is relatively easy to compare different prospective actions to work out which would have the biggest impact, and to tackle those first.
One of the most important features of the waste hierarchy is that it keeps our focus on its highest tiers, and presumes that action on waste should be taken in these areas unless it is found to be unreasonable.
Although the circular economy recognises the need to ‘design out waste’, part of its popularity arises from its emphasis on achieving traditional economic goals. In the words of Unilever’s CEO, the circular economy:
“promises a way out… [in which] products… are reused to extract their maximum value before safely and productively returning to the biosphere. Most importantly for business leaders, such an economy can deliver growth”.
In the event that the “circular” (waste prevention, reuse) and the “economy” (consumption, growth) push us in different directions, which one should take priority?
Ultimately, the circular economy and the waste hierarchy should be complimentary, so long as their different roles are understood. The former is a tool that sets and sells a broad vision for the future; the latter is a practical tool for decision-makers in the resource sector. Action on the waste hierarchy could serve as the resource sector’s contribution to the circular economy, making it one of the more clearly articulated and measurable ones. The conceptual groundwork has been laid, and is now sufficiently embedded that it can bear all manner of new superstructure – whether in the form of new and innovative implementation ideas, or grander concepts like the circular economy.
What’s most important is that different conceptual frameworks shouldn’t get in the way of decisive action on resources. The European Commission’s proposed actions under their recently announced circular economy package include measures such as targets for a 30% cut in food waste generation by 2025 and for 70% of waste to be reused or recycled by 2030. If member states can be persuaded to adopt these measures, they will put prevention and reuse in the limelight where the waste hierarchy says they belong.