Choice editing: a crucial next step for the circular economy?

Manufacturers and retailers should go beyond using persuasion techniques to encourage resource-efficient behaviours towards the process of 'choice editing', where hard-to-recycle products are removed from shelves or certain materials are eliminated from packaging in order to limit consumer choices around the circular economy.

That’s the view of leading circular economy adviser Sandy Rodger, who spoke at a circular economy event hosted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in London on Friday (4 November).

Responding to a question on the role of education in the circular economy, former Diageo and Unilever business leader Rodger stated that teaching is starting to feature in university and school curricula but that some elements of the circular economy are harder to reach through education alone. He suggested that human creativity has established a huge range of materials which creates a problem in after-use in the linear economy system. Therefore, a simplification of the materials we use is necessary.

As such decisions will never be made by individual choice across the whole population – no matter how educated they are – Rodger believes product manufacturers and retailers could become powerful levers to create ‘choice editing’ in order to automatically gain the support of consumers.

“The way we communicate is sometimes misplaced,” Rodger said. “The 10% really get it, and you might be able to persuade another 10%, but the other 80% miss it completely. Persuasion is pointless in this situation. This is a classic communication mistake.

“Part of this is ‘choice-editing’ – bigger organisations who make professional decisions are simply going to have to take away some of the choices that people have today. This may involve major consumer goods manufacturers and retailers refusing to put a product on a shelf.

“We also need to have a more harmonised approach to recycling, so that wherever you go it is exactly the same. If we did that, the education problems would slip away. We’ve got to look at this in a very cold-hearted way, and we have to make it very simple, and ultimately unavoidable.”

New Plastics Economy

The process of controlling or limiting the choices available to consumers so as to drive the circular economy is a growing concept among businesses, particularly in the area of plastic waste.

Last year, London department store Selfridges decided to rid its stores of all single-use plastic water bottles as part of a campaign to reduce pollution of the oceans. The retailer, which sold around 400,000 single-use plastic water bottles a year through its food halls and restaurants, instead encourages customers to bring their own water bottles to fill at a newly-opened traditional drinking fountain in its food hall.

Rodger singled out plastic waste as a systemic global issue, citing that 98% of the 78 million tonnes of plastics produced each year worldwide is made from virgin oil. By 2050, the entire plastics industry is expected to consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget, which must be adhered to in order to maintain the 2C limit in global temperatures.

In a previous role with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Rodger set up an unprecedented collaboration of more than 30 major companies and cities including Unilever, Coca-Cola, New York and London. That initiative used the circular economy model to propose the ‘New Plastics Economy’, which revealed that applying circular economy principles to plastic packaging could save up to $120bn for the global economy.

Breaking the stalemate

Rodger was speaking at an event which explored the meaning of the circular economy for engineering. During a 30 minute presentation, Rodger focussed on a number of central themes, including the future circular model of global supply chains.

He suggested that with re-use, remanufacturing and recycling of products, these will pass repeatedly through the customer’s hands, shifting the centre of gravity for each supply chain closer to the customer. This could bring manufacturing activity back to developed economies like the UK, whereas in recent years it has moved offshore.

Rodger highlighted the problem of manufacturing supply chains feeding products into many localities, making it hard to change unless all manufacturers and localities change simultaneously. He suggested that many future circular economy stages will be start on a micro level with relatively small pilots.

“The only way to break through this is to start with smaller, ring-fenced units,” he said. “We cannot do this by solving the whole problem at once. We can dream of that but realistically we are not going to get all the cities and businesses involved. We have to find ways of experimenting and working smaller-scale – the scale problem is right at the heart of breaking out of this stalemate.

The challenge of modularising technology to work at a local level, and creating the necessary business models and skills, provides a great opportunity for the manufacturing sector, Rodger insisted.

Later in the presentation, Rodger looked at the engineering issues involved in design. According to Rodger, in linear economy, the question ‘what’s next?’ for the product after use is often ignored by the designer. In the circular economy, however, it is an integral part of the design and the business model.

Rodger discussed the importance of new technologies and technical materials which could help tackle waste issues in the design phase. He noted the opportunities provided by biomimicry, which can use advanced structures, with relatively few chemicals, to achieve great engineering feats.

The compatibility of compostable food packing and food residues could enable the materials to be disposed of simultaneously, he suggested. Additionally, Rodger highlighted the potential for tagging and tracking technologies to facilitate separation and carry specific information.

George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie