News

Urgent: we need to get REAL about the circular economy

Environmental Journalist and Broadcaster Lucy Siegle outlines her ambitions for the RCC.

Last year, along with like-minded colleagues, we quietly started a new coalition: the Real Circularity Coalition (RCC). Here I explain why, and why -as we get noisy about circular economics – I’d love you to be part of it.

In common with many sustainability fans of my vintage, I first fell for the idea of circular economics in the early 2000s when I came across a clear-eyed yet inspiring tale of eliminating waste: Cradle-to-cradle: remaking the way we make things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Wow! This solution-focused manifesto, a blend of design and science gave me so much hope for change.

Looking back, I can see that it was also a counterweight to the concerning bits of eco design I encountered at that time – as a journalist covering sustainability (a niche trade back then). One major eco design exhibition included a speaker system made from hay bales that was treated with reverence. I thought it horrible. From the hay bale encasements emanated a muffled sound that served as a reminder (at least to me) that sustainability meant doing things that might have a lower environmental impact (questionable) but failed in every other way.

Rather than marginal tweaks to linear products, circular economics meant upending the system. It meant a complete trashing of the status quo (the only permitted waste). It was to be replaced by a focus on keeping the 93 billion tonnes of resources ripped from the Earth each year in circulation, rather than dumping them as toxic pollution.

The rest they say is history. Largely thanks to the linear economy and the pressures it puts on Planetary Boundaries, human beings have forced a geological epoch shift. Welcome to the Anthropocene. A circular economy to bring us back within planetary boundaries is not just an idea whose time has come, but a matter of survival.

Our efforts to implement it, should have this type of energy. At the moment they fall far short. This isn’t just habit, although the linear system is deeply ingrained and is rarely challenged. But it’s perhaps worse than that – the principles of the circular economy have been hijacked. In many cases circular economy has become an elaborate show-and-tell for corporations whose real aim is business as usual.

Into that ignominious category fall businesses increasingly their dependency on plastic – notably in the food and drink and fashion sector – while pursuing complex circular plans. The ecological imperatives scream that the correct course of action would be to disclose plastic use and set about radically reducing (or turning the tap off). Acting as if plastic was a circular material (I see much evidence to the contrary) ultimately leads to semi-circularity. Because in truth, capturing a relatively small amount of material after one cycle and to recycle it into something else (usually down the chain) is really just to prop up the linear system, perhaps extending the misery. This has also been horrible to witness, bringing me back into hay-bale-speaker territory. So I decided to do something about it: the coalition. Because we must think bigger and act with an ambition level that matches the potential.

Of course many companies and organisations are extremely ambitious on circular, and the markets are behind them. ESG funds are poised to invest in the real deal and crucial to driving this forward. It is these entities we can support and help build networks who are in this for real.

We started the RCC project by interviewing the world’s top experts (the book will be coming soon I promise!). We’ve paid good attention to the potential, but we’ve also noted the gaps. That includes a gap between citizen support and understanding of the drawbacks of a linear economy and the gains of transitioning to a circular one. Part of our mission then is to socialise circularity in a way that it becomes embedded and understood (I note that circular economy was not explicitly part of the UK Climate Assembly process. It should have been).

We’re also acutely aware of the policy gap. We estimate the EU Green Deal’s Circular Economy pillar contains about three quarters of the ingredients needed to transition to a circular economy. And there it might stay, unless we push decisively for change. The success of the divestment movement shows the power of broad-based movements with a clear goal. Doesn’t circular economy deserve this representation? At COP26 the real circular economy must be on the agenda too. But this involves building confidence among nature and climate advocates and policy makers alike. This is why we exist.

I hope you like the sound of us. Over the next few columns, myself and my colleague Liz Gyekye – a journalist with a huge knowledge of circular economy who heads up research for the Coalition – will explain more in a series of short columns, from the decarbonisation story of circularity and the road to COP26 to the interventions on taxonomy and how circular economy innovation can scale.

We’re all about a coalition that builds a system that finally kicks out the linear model that is doing so much to upend Earth logic. At the moment I constantly read the phrase, ‘2021 will redefine the 21s century’ – well let’s make that actually mean something. If this chimes, and you’d like to hear more about joining the coalition, let us know!

To find out more, please get in contact. Email Liz Gyekye at liz@higginsonstrategy.com