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Marcus Gover: Why we need resource sufficiency

Date: 8/07/2014 | Author: Marcus Gover

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WRAP's Marcus Gover suggests we now need to consider resource sufficiency as part of the circular economy

The circular economy has become the new buzz word in the world of waste – everyone seems to be talking about it.  Definitions differ but they all have the waste hierarchy at their heart.  It is when the waste hierarchy is applied holistically to supply chains that the circular economy comes to life. Having said this, I often find the discussion getting stuck on recycling and not looking at the greater opportunities offered by re-use and waste prevention.  This is where the real economic potential is.   When it comes to the circular economy, that is where WRAP is focussing.

The circular economy is certainly not new.  WRAP has been talking about closed loop systems since it was founded and pioneers like Walter Stahel have been talking about it since the 70s.  I heard him speak at the Scottish Resources Conference and was amazed to see him referencing a paper on the circular economy from 1976.  I think we do have to thank McKinsey and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for bringing the concept into the limelight more recently.  I also like the way that they focus on the different pathways for consumable and durable goods – seeing them as biological nutrients to be returned to the biosphere or technical nutrients to be kept in circulation.

This aligns to the way WRAP approaches the circular economy.  We have always based our work around resource loops.  We focus on loops which reflect the circular economy for food and drink, manufactured goods and the built environment.  The first is about consumables and biological nutrients and the other two are about durable goods but with very different life-cycles.  Each represents around £80 billion of UK GDP and the economic benefits of circular thinking are as significant as the environmental benefits.  To explore this in a bit more detail, let’s have a closer look at food and electricals.

The way we produce and consume food in the UK is not very circular.  Of the 50 million tonnes that is produced for UK consumption, around 12 million tonnes ends up not being eaten – enough to fill Wembley Stadium 12 times!   We aren’t recycling nearly as much as we could either – 50% is disposed of to landfill or the sewer and less than 25% is fed to AD or composting facilities to recover key plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium.  Blame is often levelled at the supermarkets for all this waste but most of it is thrown away by consumers like you and me.   Households are responsible for nearly 80% of food waste disposed of to landfill or sewer. Staggeringly, this includes 1 million tonnes of unopened food still in its packaging as hit the headlines just last week (24 June).

So how could it be more circular?  Tackling food waste prevention in the supply chain is important and we need to continue tackling it, but it is in our homes where the focus is needed. We need to encourage consumers to buy only what they need and use their leftovers.  We need more separate food waste collections for households but we also need to help consumers to make use of them.  We need more AD infrastructure to recover the nutrients from food waste and generate biogas.  If we do these things, we can reduce unnecessary food waste and increase recycling – saving money, creating jobs and generating renewable energy.

And it can work. We’ve achieved much so far with consumers and businesses through Love Food Hate Waste and the Courtauld Commitment. Thanks to these efforts we now throw away over 1Mt less avoidable food waste than in 2007.  There are also local authorities where food waste collections are established and well used.  My own in South Oxfordshire is a good example with a well communicated, weekly separate food waste collection.  It gives me an excellent service and helps the local authority achieve one of the highest recycling rates in the country.  

The way we buy, use and dispose of perfectly useable goods in the UK doesn’t just apply to food, electrical goods presents a real opportunity for embedding circular thinking.  

Every year we spend over £20 billion on electrical and electronic devices that make our lives better.  By weight that is around 1.4 million tonnes per year.   We dispose of a similar amount. Nearly 40% of this goes to landfill and less than 10% is re-used despite the fact that much of it either works or could be repaired. The way we generally recycle WEEE also fails to recover the precious metals found in electronics – mobile phones contain around 300g of gold per tonne for example.  WRAP estimates that we probably landfill around a tonne of gold per year in the UK!

Changing how we design, make, buy and dispose of electrical and electronic equipment could deliver substantial carbon savings and add £800 million to UK GDP.  This would mean goods being designed to last longer, designed with repair in mind and designed for recycling.  It would allow longer guarantees, which we know consumers want, new leasing and trade-in models and effective recycling.  It would allow a much more circular economy. Later this month, WRAP will announce a new platform to help achieve this. The Electricals Sustainability Action Plan will develop a shared picture of evidence and opportunities for sector action and partnerships to deliver a more circular economy.

The circular economy will play a huge part in reducing waste, increasing re-use and driving recycling.  It will give us a much more resource efficient economy and all the benefits that go with that to help meet the needs of today’s world.  The only trouble is that as the world population heads towards 9 billion and another 3 billion join the middle classes, it won’t be enough.  The rate of growth in emerging economies is huge.  It is an issue that companies like Shell are very focussed on.  I read an analysis in their scenarios report from last year showing that the growth in per capita GDP achieved by countries like China in a generation to a hundred years or more for western economies like the US, UK and Germany.  

With such demand for resources just around the corner, we need to start thinking about resource sufficiency and consumption.  These are difficult subjects for some but we need to face up to them. 

In the words of Peter Voser, Royal Dutch Shell chief executive: “Business as usual will not be an option – we require business unusual.”  But is a circular economy ‘business unusual’ enough?

We need to go beyond the waste hierarchy, beyond resource efficiency, and beyond the circular economy.   We need to start thinking about resource sufficiency and consumption. I am not suggesting a hair shirt approach, resource sufficiency should not mean returning to the last century.  For example increasing the use of public transport would be a resource sufficiency strategy but it should be achieved by making public transport more attractive rather than restricting car use. We see this in places like Switzerland.  New approaches to car sharing can also achieve this – have a look at liftshare.com.     

This is what Walter Stahel’s performance economy is all about – an economy where sufficiency solutions and the minimisation of resource inputs increase profit.  It is an economy where we consume goods differently with businesses supplying smart materials, smart goods and smart solutions. It is an economy based on new thinking, new metrics and new business models.

New business models will be a critical part of the performance economy and is what WRAP is exploring with the EU-funded REBus project. With our partners in the UK and the Netherlands we are supporting 30 pilots of new business models across Europe.   These pilots will involve innovative solutions to resource sufficiency and sustainability, and we are working with some leading household names.

So how do we make all this happen? Government can put in place the policy frameworks and incentives to support it.  Intervening to achieve this will be a higher priority for some governments than others though.  Equally, consumers are unlikely to voluntarily change their behaviour or moderate their demand without being sold the benefits and solutions of doing so.  So for me, it is business that we need to look to, to bring about this change.  Business can offer the smart materials, smart goods and smart solutions that Walter Stahel talks about.

WRAP is there to help, but it is business that can make the difference and reap the rewards of circular and the performance economy.

Marcus Gover is a director at WRAP

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