Why we need to start walking in circles

Stop thinking so straight - if you want to profit from true resource management, it's time to ditch the linear and embrace a little bit of loopiness, argues Chris Dow

The recycling industry has been built on the concept of redesigning and rethinking products so that after they have been used by consumers, their component parts return to manufacturers. The organic elements are used to support agriculture, and valuable resources such as plastics and metals are used in the creation of new products. In this way, today’s goods become tomorrow’s resources, forming a circular process.

At Closed Loop Recycling, we were lucky enough to host a visit by Ellen MacArthur Foundation chief executive Jamie Butterworth recently and the subject of what the circular economy means to the recycling industry was top of the agenda. Myself and several of my industry colleagues believe that the closed loop or circular economy presents a vision of a prosperous and sustainable future.

Our experience since opening our Dagenham plant shows that companies such as M&S, Britvic and Nampak are ready to rethink the way they operate and turn traditional business models on their head. We believe there are four key areas that will be integral to building the closed loop economy: innovative product design and production; new business models responding to sustainability; improvements in materials treatment and technology to capture resources, and influencing actions that lead to changes in behaviour.

Innovation in sustainable product design will help manufacturers select materials that are optimal for their products’ use, reuse and recycling. Products must become more compatible with the next stage in the closed loop process and, where appropriate, producers must start looking at modularising and standardising them for easier disassembly and enabling purer material flows.

New business models will develop that include producers and retailers changing from selling to ‘users’ rather than ‘consumers’, providing services rather than products and giving access rather than ownership to items and goods. For example the concept of packaging being a rented item rather than an owned one-use item will evolve.

Sustainability is no longer just about corporate responsibility for many companies – there are fundamental business reasons behind this. Profits are at risk if they can’t access materials needed to make their products in time. According to a survey undertaken with manufacturing executives by the EEF earlier this year, the most significant risk to their business plan was a shortage of raw materials. This risk is pervasive, with the same proportion across all sizes of company and industry sectors seeing this threat.

To generate the closed loop circular economy, we need to combat resource wastage. New collection systems will evolve and be designed to preserve the quality of materials, whilst being easy-to-use and cost-effective. We will also look to innovative companies to develop new technology that will optimise the quantity and quality of materials that can be extracted from waste streams.

Repeated use of products and materials will stimulate markets for reuse, refurbishing and remanufacturing. Products will be made from more sustainable materials such as recycled plastic and leadership will come from visionary industries and companies such as the UK dairy industry which has shown commitment and resolve in its journey to deliver an environmental roadmap that surely is a world leader.

Above all, cultural and behavioural change amongst consumers, business and our industry will lead the way to redefining our understanding of resources and their appropriate value to a modern world.

Chris Dow is managing director of Closed Loop Recycling

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