Is the Circular Economy too much of a dream?

For those who have a genuine interest and concern for the environment, replacing the linear economy with a circular economy is not optional. The planet has dwindling resources and a massive pollution problem.  However, switching from a century’s old linear economy is infinitely complicated - as many companies with green intentions are finding out.

It is one thing to create a circular strategy and quite another to implement it in a still predominantly linear economy marketplace. Especially at a time when businesses are battling to mitigate the effects of a global pandemic and a looming no-deal Brexit.  The reality is that despite the best of intentions there will always be a cost, one benefit offset against another. Until we’re able to effectively close the loop, there will always be some level of waste.

What is the best course of action now? How do we overcome the challenges standing in the way of converting to a circular economy? Is it a realistic course of action to pursue? Perhaps a good starting point is to consider how the shortcuts that have been taken in recent years are hampering the transition.

The myth of local recycling

In 2018, when China decided that they would no longer be the world’s dumping ground for plastic waste, it busted the myth that recycling was the solution to the global plastic problem. Curbside recycling recycling  gave the illusion that it was okay to use plastic, because as long as you disposed of it in recycling bins it wouldn’t go to landfill and pollute the planet.

But when media published images of three-story high bales of plastic waste clogging Asian ports it told another story. Most people were shocked to discover that while significant amounts of plastic were collected for recycling only about 10% of it was actually being processes and repurposed. And most of that was being done overseas. We also mustn’t forget the piles of burning plastic in Turkey.

Product design and development

With circular economy strategies, many ask the question: Where to start? Do you start with waste as a resource and develop from there? Do you start with systems and operations to reduce the amount of waste and improve efficiencies? Or do you start with product design and development?

Indeed, many are of the opinion that one of the reasons there is such a waste problem is due to planned obsolescence. Products are not designed to last, they are designed to be replaced so that people buy more, and buy more often.  The tech industry is particularly guilty of this, specifically manufacturers of mobile phones and tablets. Even if the hardware still operates effectively, software updates limit functionality. So users in their frustration opt to upgrade and buy again despite having a phone that still works perfectly.

Apple recently announced that in an effort to curb e-waste, they would not be issuing charger cables and earphones with their next generation iPhone. In reality it’s a token gesture that doesn’t really address the problem at all. They’re still spending millions of marketing dollars to convince people to get the latest iPhone.

Recycling efforts are also hampered by the many different types of plastics and materials used in product packaging. Few efforts have been made to standardise plastics, so sorting and processing plastic for recycling is costly and time consuming. One example is black plastic which is difficult for infrared sorting sensors to pick up. It simply highlights that product designers and developers have little insight as to how their decisions impact circular economy efforts. We know that many supermarkets are now addressing black plastics, which is great but it is the tip of the iceberg.  Similarly, design is driven more by marketing and sales strategies rather than sustainability.

Full circle back to profitability

So we return to considering what the driving force is behind business strategies? As long as profits and sales remain the priority, environmental long term sustainability will be shortchanged. Companies signing up for circular membership and accreditation do so by making token efforts to support sustainability. Changing mindsets, strategies and operational policies is hard and won’t happen overnight, but that shouldn’t be a reason to take the easy route because in the longer term it is going to have a negative impact. Change has to start with the level at which operational and strategic decisions are being made instead of greenwashing for the sake of PR. If 2020 has shown us nothing else it’s that agility and forward thinking are what will help companies survive the challenges ahead. But will they be smart enough to realise true circular economy thinking and environmental sustainability has to be a part of that?