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Time to get real: Take-make-dispose economy must be transformed into a real circular economy

One of the many things Albert Einstein is said to have said is: “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It is a quote that is apt for our times, as countries plan to reboot their economies following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As they do this, they have to remember that the transition to a ‘real’ circular economy  – where the design, production, consumption of goods and services work in harmony with nature rather than against it – is more relevant than ever.

That’s why we at the Real Circularity Coalition believe that real circularity will only be achieved where all products are designed to be 100% recyclable.

With a background in environmental journalism, over the past decade, I have noticed a change in the way the sector views the real circular economy. I first noticed a shift in the resource management sector’s thinking when I published stories about certain companies stating that they were replacing plastic packaging materials with what they claim were ‘environmentally-friendly’ alternative ones.

In the past, industry experts would agree with these alternatives straight away. However, nowadays, they are more cautious. They start to question ‘Is there any lifecycle assessment study performed? If it’s plastic-free at the expense of increased greenhouse gas releases in the making, is it worthy?’ As usual, waste versus greenhouse gas emissions, they maintain.

There is a growing consensus within the resource management industry that governments should incentivise circular business models to reduce not only production-based emissions, but consumption based ones and move the conversation on from diverting waste from landfill.

We realise that there is a policy gap. That’s why we at the Real Circularity Coalition are calling on global leaders gathering at this year’s COP26 climate talks, taking place in Glasgow in November, to put the real circular economy on the agenda.

Despite being a critical player in discussions around emissions reduction, the real circular economy agenda was notably absent from COP25, when it was hosted by Madrid in 2019, and has been absent from previous negotiations for years. Although many of you in the industry have worked hard to introduce this narrative, it’s clear more work needs to be done to draw in all the important environmental aspects of the climate crisis that need to be addressed as part of the solution. COP26 offers the chance to rectify this error.

Legislation is being developed to help the transition. Yet, laws like the EU Green Deal’s Circular Economy pillar contains about three quarters of the ingredients needed to transition to a circular economy. We are arguing for policymakers to strengthen laws like this to scale-up the real circular economy.

In fact, part of our mission is to lobby for a stronger regulatory framework. We realise that there is only a limited amount of progress that businesses can make without government intervention, and that markets won’t fundamentally shift on their own.

Founded in 2020 by environmental campaigner, journalist and author Lucy Siegle, the RCC promotes, campaigns for, and drives forward a real circular economy. We are leading the way to accelerate the globe’s transition from linear and semi-circular systems, and believes passionately that this transition is vital if mankind is to meet the key environmental challenges facing the world in the 2020s and beyond.

That is why we the RCC has brought together leaders from all industries to push the circular economy to the forefront of both the political and business landscape.

Over the next few columns, Lucy and I will explain more in a series of short columns, from how circular economy innovation can scale to enabling factors for delivery. We encourage you to let us know what other topics you would like to see covered and if you would like to join our coalition.

As a community of sustainability professionals, we have an opportunity to help lead the conversation and lean into actions that provide hope for a circular future.

Rest assured that the RCC will be keeping governments on their toes and lobbying them to ensure that the circular economy is hot on their agendas. They need to act now; they need to get real.

We would love to hear from you. You can contact me at liz@higginsonstrategy.com