Blog 06 Dec 2023 

Big Concepts in Brief: What is Circular Economy?

Dan answers some of the most frequently asked questions about the Circular Economy, from its basic definition to its impact on the environment.

Dan Noakes

Dan Noakes

Systemic Challenge Lead

Return to old values: multi-use and multi-purpose. What if there was a better way? Meet the circular economy – where materials enjoy an extended lease on life by avoiding incineration and landfills — a kind fate that innovation can and should write.

We need to return to valuing quality over quantity and longer term thinking over quick fixes. As we grapple with the increasingly urgent and distressing realities of climate change and environmental degradation, it’s time we returned to old values. This may mean carefully selecting the materials we use and products we buy, connecting on a personal level with our purchases, onboarding items that align with our life journey, taking what we need and returning what we no longer need. 

Every time we harvest raw materials from the planet, we pollute ecosystems and emit harmful gases into the atmosphere. At the end of a product’s (far too short) life, we dispose of materials either through incineration or by dumping them in landfills. 

If we could turn our unwanted items into materials and products wanted by others, , we’d arrive at the circular economy. 

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy avoids discarding waste or materials at the end of their life cycle, instead giving them multiple lives including reintroducing them back into manufacturing supply chains. 

In essence, any process that avoids incineration and landfill contributes to a circular economy. 

The Ellen McArthur Foundation, an organisation carrying out circular economy research, describes circular economy as a system where materials never become waste and nature is regenerated.” The principles are that waste and pollution are designed out, through materials remaining in use as products or components and natural processes are supported so nature can thrive. 

At its heart, this model aims to consistently reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover energy as the very last resort (Waste Hierarchy). 

What materials can be part of a circular economy?

The great news is that manufacturers can choose their input materials. Some industries will be more limited in their options, but they all can work towards adopting secondary materials over virgin materials in the manufacture of new products. 

Wood is a great example of a raw material that can be repurposed as part of a circular economy. Sustainable forestry can turn wood into cellulose for paper production. That paper can then be reused or recycled to create other products. Items like aluminium cans and glass bottles can be recycled almost indefinitely. In fact, making new glass from old glass consumes far less energy than starting from the basic raw materials used in glass manufacture.

Why is the circular economy important?

A circular economy, when implemented properly, reduces our impact on the environment and our reliance on virgin raw materials extracted from the ground. 

By giving our products a new life, we’re reducing the overall amount of carbon emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere and slowing the environmental decline of our planet. In fact, if we implement effective circular economy strategies around just four key industrial materials — cement, plastics, steel and aluminium — alongside how we produce food, we can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2050.

What is a circular business model?

We cannot achieve a circular economy without circular business models. These can be defined as any business model that makes financial gains from a circular system that outweigh the gains made from a traditional, linear system (take, make, disposed). 

In the UK, we saw the first of these models come to market following the introduction of the Landfill Tax which helped to establish recycling industry for post consumer waste. The challenge today is: how do we find the next generation of circular business models that will allow us to move further up the Waste Hierarchy, and re-use even more of our unwanted materials and products? 

What is CPI doing to build a circular economy?

Many cities in the UK have committed to reducing food and municipal waste. This means local authorities must find a way to redesign the way they process waste. At CPI, we are helping cities to map their material flows so they can come up with a plan to meet their circular-economy objectives. 

On top of that, we are working to develop the next generation of recycling technology. Our work with DEScycle is a great example of how innovation and technology can help us reimagine our relationship with resources – in this case, metals and discarded electronics. Another example is start-up Stuff4Life which is repurposing personal protective equipment (PPE) through advanced recycling processes.

Finally, we have long advocated for the creation and use of sustainable materials – an area in which we have specialist expertise. We accelerate the development and commercialisation of sustainable materials with various applications, such as bio-based and biodegradable materials for consumer products like packaging, cosmetics and textiles and industrial chemicals and durable materials like composites used in automotive, and aerospace and renewable energy. 

Reinventing the way we do things isn’t easy, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. But with the right tools, knowledge and innovation, we can make great strides towards a circular economy which is kinder to the planet and supports a healthier, happier society.

Learn more about our work within the materials sector

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