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Getting ready for Rio – the circular economy PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Friday, 27 April 2012 11:43

In our Rio-readying editorial series we have already debated the policy pre-requisites of digital infrastructure investment with two contributions from Marit Hendriks and a commentary on the Royal Society’s report ‘People and the Planet’.

EMF logoAs an answer to the Royal Society’s plea for a reduction in consumption, the latest report from Ellen MacArthur’s Foundation, ‘Towards a Circular Economy’ deserves consideration beyond the bounds of its targeted audience in the European Commission.

The report addresses four basic questions:

  • How does the circular economy compare to the race to improve efficiency within today’s ‘take-make-dispose’ economy?
  • What are the benefits of a restorative model to businesses and the economy?
  • How can companies and policy makers carry the concept to its breakthrough at scale?
  • Can some of today’s fundamental shifts in technology and consumer behaviour be used to accelerate the transition?

The report starts by outlining ‘the limits of linear consumption’ – and tackles head on the current ‘take-make-dispose’ pattern that generates a vast waste of raw materials. The authors observe that, ‘Whilst major strides have been made in improving resource efficiency and exploring new forms of energy, less thought has been given to systematically designing out material leakage and disposal,’ and notes the inherent commercial risks in dependence on rising and volatile resource prices and supply disruption.

Attention then shifts to the challenge of how to accelerate the proven ‘circular’ concept where all manner of goods are designed to be ‘made-to-be-made again’ – where waste is designed out and things are optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. The implications of this circular approach are that ‘consumers’ become ‘users’, there’s a greater emphasis on product performance and there’s a need to incentivize recycling.

The report illustrates the concepts with case studies of products and the processes for improving the recycling rate – potentially leading to 50% cost reductions in remanufacturing of mobile phones (if only they were designed to be easier to take apart) and a projected saving of $1.1bn of landfill costs in the UK.

This leads to an assessment of the scale of opportunity with, for the EU, a recurrent annual saving of up to 3.9% of GDP (or around US$ equivalent of 630bn per annum). The benefits are clearly greater in some sectors (like automotive manufacturing) but the report fairly points out that these projections are ‘aspirational’ this side of widespread endorsement and encouragement by policy makers.

But despite being in ‘a pioneering phase’ the report argues that the ‘the shift has begun’ – driven by resource scarcity, the enabling power of information technology and social media and the apparent willingness of consumers to prefer ‘access’ to ‘ownership’.

This EMF report should be listed as basic reading for all attendees at Rio+20 in June – not least because of its inherent humility and reasonableness. It does not prescribe a complete solution to economic sustainability but it will shift your mind ‘Towards a Circular Economy’.


Rio+20The UN Conference in Rio (June) - Rio+20 so named because it falls 20 years on from the first 'Earth Summit' - will be reported for Groupe Intellex by Marit Hendriks, a Groupe Intellex Associate and director of NextGen Events Ltd - the UK's premier platform for Next Generation Access development.


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