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COLUMN: Circular Economy should be simple to understand

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 11/16/2018 2:23:00 PM

October and November 2018 have seen no less than three major conferences on the Circular Economy. First was the World Circular Economy Forum 2018 held in Japan, second was the Circular Economy Hotspot Scotland, held in Glasgow, and third was the Metro Vancouver 2018 Zero Waste Conference. 

At the Vancouver event, it was announced that the 2020 World Circular Economy Forum would be held somewhere in Canada, giving Canadian companies that want to promote their involvement in what is increasingly called Circularity an advance opportunity to develop their initiative and design their promotion. 

While presenting an organization’s involvement in the latest environment and economy leadership fad may well be a good idea, there is an added challenge when it comes to displaying business achievements in Circularity: there is no real agreement on what Circularity involves. Clearly, some proponents believe that Circularity means recycling end of life materials to make new goods. Often composting is included as well. 

At two of three conferences I attended, some argued that only upcycling — recycling end of life materials into higher or equal value goods — qualified for Circular Economy status. Downcycling — recycling into lower value goods — apparently did not qualify. 

Some were making the case, not always convincingly, that Circularity has to do with meeting the sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Others argued that it has to do with conservation of extracted resources to prolong the availability of these resources for future generations or, in the case of petroleum resources, so that they would not be used at all. 

Toxic substances were mentioned frequently in the context of Circular Economy, on the argument that toxic substances present a barrier to continuous reuse of materials. Very often Circular Economy is applied to plastics and not much else, reflecting both that plastics are currently a target of much environmental criticism, and that much of the European Commission’s early work on Circular Economy had focussed on plastics. 

In conversation I expressed the view that if Circular Economy is to become widely adopted as a business strategy, it has to be simple to understand and to apply as well as measurable and have verifiable results. A well-known business leader agreed with me and then, speaking from the platform, outlined a complex interweave of criteria that need to be met for a manufacturer to claim compliance with Circular Economy principles! 

Fortunately, the European Commission has already adopted a definition of Circular Economy which works for me and which will hopefully be adopted as the global definition: a Circular Economy is an economy ‘where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimized’. While some criticize that definition for having too much wiggle room, it is at least a definition with a comprehensive and achievable scope and some hope for measurement of progress. 

Although Circular Economy may prove to be a fad, the concept has a sound basis in environmental and resource science. Non-renewable resources exist in finite quantities and it is economically foolish to treat them as if they will be available forever. The rate of production of renewable resources is limited by the availability of arable land, a resource in increasingly short supply that will almost certainly come under even greater pressure as human populations increase. Humans are polluting the planet with waste materials and the ability of natural systems to safely absorb many of those wastes is already being compromised in many regions. So it would be good to see the concept of Circular Economy widely adopted in all nations.

Most business leaders today have heard the cliché “what gets measured gets done”. It may be more accurate to state that “if you do not measure it, it will not get done”. Either way, the European Commission has developed a monitoring framework for the Circular Economy that recognizes the importance of measurement in achieving progress. 

The 10 indicators include:

  • self-sufficiency for raw materials: the Circular Economy should help to address the supply risks for raw materials, in particular critical raw materials
  • green public procurement: public procurement accounts for a large share of consumption and can drive the Circular Economy
  • waste generation: in a Circular Economy waste generation is minimized
  • food waste: discarding food has negative environmental, climate and economic impacts
  • overall recycling rates
  • recycling rates for specific waste streams
  • contribution of recycled materials to raw materials demand
  • trade in recyclable raw materials
  • private investments, jobs and gross value added
  • patents. 

Companies and organizations that wish to showcase their participation in the Circular Economy at the 2020 World Circular Economy Forum to be held somewhere in Canada would be well advised to have data available on as many of the above indicators as are relevant to their situation. 

Information on the 2020 World Circular Economy Forum will appear on the website of the Circular Economy Leadership Coalition at www.circulareconomyleaders.ca, but Circularity takes time, so an early start at planning the organizational initiative will certainly assist the quality of the outcomes.

See also:

  1. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a monitoring framework for the circular economy, January 2018 
  2. World Circular Economy Forum 2018 Report 
  3. Slides from the Circular Economy Hotspot Scotland 
  4. Videos from the Metro Vancouver 2018 Zero Waste Conference will be posted on www.zwc.ca or you can receive notification by signing up for the ZWC Blog.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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