The role of manufacturers and retailers in creating a truly circular economy for the UK

Consumers have long been targeted for their sustainability efforts, from recycling to upcycling and beyond. However, while individuals can make a difference to sustainability targets, businesses, and in particular, manufacturers and retailers are now being called upon to do much more to help create Britain's much needed circular economy.

The role of manufacturers and retailers in creating a truly circular economy for the UK

Why? Because it’s critical that end-of-life recycling is considered at the very early stages of new product development – only then can we be assured of a sustainable, and long-term vision for products that does not mean simply discarding them at the end of their original use and life. And by placing more onus on manufacturers and retailers to deliver this, we can create more accountability and no doubt, more action.

Producer responsibility forces designers, manufacturers and retailers into considering what will happen to goods at the end of their useful life and designing products that take this into account, so that the end of a product’s life is merely the start of a new one. Developing more producer responsibility schemes, which will see accountability formalised, would represent a huge step towards the circular economy and in time would help ensure that products thrown away are able to be reused or recycled in a cost-effective manner, which does not include landfill or energy from waste as an option.

The earth’s resources are scarce and extremely costly to access. Although the trend for material possessions is ever increasing, I believe there has to be legislation which will stop the linear products from generation to landfill and create a circular cycle, which means that all products can be made into raw commodity at the end of their useful life and then be used to manufacture new products in the future.

Another element of the producer responsibility scheme is to ensure manufacturers take into account the origin of the materials used. If good quality materials were reconditioned and reused on a wide scale at the manufacturing stage, not only would we see significant cost reductions for the business, but we’d also see recycled products being used at every phase of development, taking us another step closer to achieving a circular economy.

I would hope that the government’s long awaited 25-year environment plan, that’s due to be published in January 2018, will include producer responsibility and end-of-life considerations, and their pivotal role in delivering a truly circular economy.

Setting the benchmark, Coca-Cola GB is already well underway with its own producer responsibility efforts. The drinks company is aiming to boost the recycled content of its bottles to 50 per cent in Great Britain, content of which will be sourced from the UK. It’s also trialling a deposit return scheme (DRS) for its bottles and has created a new advertising campaign to reach the teen market – the highest users of on-the-go (500ml) products, which have the lowest recycling rates.

Of course, for an organisation of this size, investment in sustainability practices is likely to be deliverable, without impacting too heavily on the bottom line. For smaller manufacturers and retailers, I appreciate it’s not that easy to mobilise, which is why collaborative working will become critical to the success of the circular economy.

In my view, only when government, sustainability professionals, manufacturers and retailers come together will this vision become a reality. By shifting the focus onto manufacturers, for many we are asking them to work to different principles and guidelines, find new suppliers and materials and employ product development teams that will need new skills and understanding on a subject that may have historically taken a back seat. That’s a big leap for many businesses, and will require investment in talent, research and even equipment for some.

By working together, manufacturers and retailers can share their part of the burden with industry and governmental experts, harnessing their knowledge to collaboratively deliver the step change that’s needed if we are to achieve the much needed circular economy we’re striving for. 

For me, the role for government is to ensure it legislates on the topic of producer responsibility while sustainability professionals must share their expertise to deliver on-the-ground, actionable advice that can help manufacturers and retailers ensure they are adhering to that regulation. 

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