From the late 1970s, we started going to the bottle bank to deposit (smash) our red, green and clear bottles in the appropriate recycling bin. And in 2003, the Household Waste Recycling Act was passed. This meant that by 2010, local authorities in the UK had to provide every household with recycling services, making the job of caring for the environment more convenient and ingraining it into our routines.
Putting items into the recycling bin rather than the waste bin, makes many of us feel better about consuming. We’re conforming to society’s expectations. But with what we now know about declining resources and mounting waste, the release of guilt we feel from recycling isn’t justified.
Recycling may mean materials are re-used or it may mean they are shipped overseas – destination unknown. Whatever the fate of the recyclable items in our carefully prepared black boxes, brown bags and green bins, the reality is that most will eventually end up in landfill or being incinerated. Recycling delays but does not solve. The world has finite resources, and whilst it’s better to slow down the rate we use them, this is not the answer.
The alternative is buying from a new wave of businesses operating in the circular economy, a market estimated by McKinsey to present a global opportunity of $1 trillion. It’s a very big deal. In simple terms, the circular economy means products are kept in use for as long as possible. And when they are no longer useable, the materials they are made from can be broken back down into raw materials and used again in the supply chain – just as valuable as before the original product was made.
So what do these companies actually do? The thinking starts early in the production process. Products are made to last, using methods that mean they can be easily repaired or taken apart when further use is not possible. And their business models and the services they provide back this up – rental as well as ownership options, taking back products when the customer no longer wants them, creating secondary markets, providing repairs and selling replacement parts (even if they no longer sell the product) – all to keep them in use for longer. This approach is in direct contradiction (favourably) to recently reported actions of Apple, who operate a model of planned obsolescence with no accountability for products beyond their warranty date!
But the circular economy is not a new thing. It now just has a name and these businesses as a group, have a growing identity. Globechain has been established in the circular economy since 2013. They help businesses reduce waste by providing a reuse marketplace for listing unneeded items (e.g. fixtures and fittings, obsolete stock) – all items are free for collection by charities, SMEs and individuals, keeping them in use and away from landfill.
In assessing when the circular economy will become a household term in the UK, as we saw with recycling, convenience is key. Circular economy companies need to ensure the “asks” of consumers to help deliver circularity are no greater than they are now. Consumers want to do the right thing, but if it makes their lives more difficult, and where they are not compelled to legally or by financial penalty (like with the UK carrier bag charge), only the really dedicated believers will conform.
As the growth of businesses operating in the circular economy or with circular economy principles continues to accelerate, hopefully we will see consumers starting to ask the right questions when they shop.