Why 2020 is the year of the collaborative circular economy
"The moment of crisis has come. We can no longer prevaricate." Naturalist and veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough pulled no punches in a recent BBC interview. If we are to keep global warming below 1.5C, greenhouse gas emissions must almost halve by 2030.
This means that 2020 must be the year where emissions growth stops and the trend reverses.
We start the year with public awareness of our impact on the planet at an all-time high. That’s partly thanks to the tireless work of science communicators, activists and educators, but footage of the bushfires in Australia and the flooding in Indonesia has driven the message home harder than any campaign ever could.
Seeking alternative models
2020 may well be the year when many realise that our current models of what “success” and “productivity” look like do not capture their meaning or potential – which should urge us to seek out alternative models. The concept of the circular economy is a well-established alternative to the prevailing “take, make, waste” model, where we extract resources and throw things away as if the planet’s resources are infinite.
The economic benefits of a circular economy are clear: when you use reclaimed parts in car manufacturing or make clothes from recycled textiles, you are boosting resource productivity. Making every tonne of steel or bale of cotton work harder means increasing your industry’s Gross Value Added (GVA), which is a key part of how we calculate GDP.
The shift to this model is people-driven too: increasingly, people want to know exactly what is in the products they buy, and whether it has another useful life beyond its first. This has fundamentally shaped Tarkett’s approach to product development, which embeds both material transparency and circular economy principles from the outset.
Partnership is key
But in a world of complex trading relationships and supply chains, this circular approach for manufacturers is something that can only be achieved by engaging with others. At Tarkett, we recently announced the development of a ground-breaking process allowing us to effectively separate the two main components of our carpet tiles: the polyamide yarn and the backing. But this pioneering process would not be possible without our trusted partner Aquafil, who recycles the fluff generated by Tarkett’s recycling centre into what is known as “regenerated nylon”. Just one example of how achieving a circular economy requires a collaborative approach.
It also requires thinking outside your own sector. At our Jacarei plant in Brazil, we have been trialling the use of medical blister packaging and mobile phone SIM cards in our vinyl composite and luxury vinyl tiles. Since we only source high-quality PVC waste, we are able to integrate 100% of it into our LVT and VCT flooring, helping to reduce the need to use virgin PVC. We can include a significant proportion of recycled PVC in LVT and VCT flooring, preventing the generation of landfill waste. In this way, we’ve recycled more than 4000 tonnes of post-industrial PVC at our Brazilian plant since 2015.
But this is only becoming a reality because we looked beyond the flooring sector exploring high-quality alternative sources of material to collaborate with the medical and telecommunications sectors.
It’s important to look beyond the world of business too. Our membership of the Circular Economy 100 (CE100) Network has been invaluable because it brings us together not just with other businesses, but universities, local authorities, governments and thought leaders.
Regulatory pressure is another reason why 2020 is the year for business to change its approach. In July 2018, European leaders approved new waste reduction rules and gave member states two years to transpose these into national legislation. This year is the deadline for member states to hit the target of recycling/reusing at least 50% of municipal waste, and this target will keep increasing in future years. You can’t meet a target like that by focusing exclusively on recycling infrastructure and collection: you have to look at how this waste is being generated in the first place.
We are already familiar with the principle of “polluter pays”, the idea that the company generating the waste pays for its disposal. In 2020 we will be hearing more about extended producer responsibility: not just paying to dump a product, but potentially being required to accept returned products and product waste. When you have responsibility for the “afterlife” of a product, that changes your priorities at design stage. We designed our EcoBase carpet tile backing to be separable from the yarn because we wanted to take responsibility for the tiles once their useful life is over. The legislative nudges on the way may push other companies’ priorities in the right direction.
Brexit may mean that the UK does not have to meet EU targets, but England, Scotland and Wales have already set their own targets that exceed EU goals. (Northern Ireland recently closed a consultation on its waste management plan.)
More ambitious EU targets are on the horizon, too: 55% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2025, all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030, a 10% cap on landfill by 2035. Some countries are struggling to just meet this year’s 50% recycling target; to get on track for the future, 2020 is the year where they will have to seriously examine their approach to waste generation and reduction. This can’t be done without cooperation between businesses, governments and the public. Rethinking the way we treat our planet’s resources is a real step change, and it is only possible by working together.