The future looks bright – as long as it’s circular

Changing society from a 'buy and bin' to a 'rent and return' culture may take a generation to achieve, but the pain in getting there will be worth the effort, says Angus Middleton

No matter how much we recycle, there is always some waste and considerable energy used in the destruction and recreation of products. Even 100% recycling rates would not so much make for a circular economy as an oval one, with inclusion of energy-from-waste just making that oval more eccentric.

Going cradle-to-cradle will always need a push, but the trick is to minimise how energetic that push must be. The more that products and components can be reused or easily reassembled, the more circular our economy will become. There is much talk around this subject, but little agreement on how to make it happen: incremental change, sudden action, market force and legislation are all touted as the solution. All have merits, but all rely on conventional thinking and so miss the mark somewhat.

The metric of the moment appears to be wellbeing, which is being adopted by various government, corporate and NGO organisations. It is a good attempt at combining human activities with the surrounding environment, but in practice puts wealth above wildlife. There is little mention of recycling, let alone truly closing the loop on resource use.

This is unfortunate, since making the economy circular would go a long way to improving most aspects of wellbeing: economic, social and natural. It could even improve personal wellbeing, because there is one way in which we could circle our economy whilst improving all our lifestyles.

Engineering a more circular, sharing society hinges to a great extent on producer responsibility. Going forward, it will be in companies’ interests to ensure that their products can be reused or easily reassembled, as that is where most profit will lie. Meanwhile those businesses that continue on the cradle-to-grave or even traditional recycling routes will soon be out performed by those firms that reuse component parts.

There will be Darwinian evolution of both designs and their corporate designers, with improved sustainability being the happy by-product. There will a reduction in virgin material consumption, a reduction in energy use and a reduction in waste. This will be good for the economy and good for security of supply.

There will also be a benefit to consumers. They will be able to maintain a reasonably high level of consumption, but do so in a sustainable way as the things they use will not actually be consumed, just altered for the next lap around the economy. This in turn is likely to reduce the price of goods over the medium term and improve employment in the UK. There should also be wider benefits such as an improved balance of payments since raw materials generally originate from abroad.

It should not be too difficult to make this all happen. The next generation are already a ‘warm’ audience, so persuading them to adopt a sharing lifestyle with its many advantages should be relatively easy. That said, it will require government commitment – policies to nudge both industry and consumers in the right direction will be needed, as will some practical alterations such as simplification of waste law.

There will be some complexities and unforeseen challenges, but changing society from buy-and-bin to predominantly rent-and-return will move the UK a long way towards sustainability at comparatively low cost. While this change may be impossible for our generation to achieve, it will not be so for our children and they should reap many advantages.

Angus Middleton is business development director at Argyll Environmental

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