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Can the circular economy transform developing countries?

A new briefing paper by the international affairs think tank Chatham House has outlined a number of ways that the circular economy could help lower-income countries ‘leapfrog’ to more sustainable development pathways and seeks to kickstart the building of an evidence base to explore these further.

Authored by researchers Felix Preston and Johanna Lehne of Chatham House’s Energy, Environment and Resources Department, the briefing paper, ‘A wider circle? The circular economy in developing countries’, explores the potential for the circular economy to be integrated into the development agenda at a time where global material flows and markets are experiencing disruption as China, a key destination for waste exports, prepares to introduce major restrictions on imported waste materials by the start of 2018.

Can the circular economy transform developing countries?
Charity WasteAid UK works to implement low-cost recycling processes in communities in the developing world
Until now, the circular economy agenda is one that has largely focused on wealthier countries and research into the implications and potential of circular economy strategies for developing economies has been drastically under-researched.

Resource efficiency has long been part of development strategies focused on sustainable development, poverty eradication, climate change mitigation and resilient economic growth and is ties directly into 12 of the 17 UN Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN in 2015 to create a more sustainable world, setting specific targets including to half food waste, increase resource-efficiency and reduce unsustainable consumption by 2030.

The briefing paper intimates that the circular economy could be an appropriate strategy for developing economies, helping them to deal with the pressures of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, for several reasons.

Firstly, it suggests that many lower income countries are in many ways more circular than richer countries as more of the economic activity in these countries revolves around repair, reuse and recovery and that this could provide entry points for implementing wider circular economy ideals.

There is also the potential for job creation as re-manufacturing and a sharing economy expands, although the paper states that more research needs to be done into the quality of such potential jobs. Finally, the spread of digital technologies is facilitating the uptake of circular economy ideas such as mobile payments and the ‘internet of things’, although there is still a ‘digital divide’ to bridge, with 60 per cent of the global population not having access to the internet, while two billion people do not own a mobile phone.

Testing the waters

Following the publication of the briefing paper, which represents the start of a longer process that will include the publication of a more detailed research paper in the spring, author Lehne said: “It’s definitely been clear for some time that there are growing resource pressures in developing countries and, certainly from a waste side of things, there are growing pressures particularly in urban areas.

International businesses throw weight behind Sustainable Development Goals
A circular economy would contribute to a number of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals
“We’re not necessarily looking at anything new, but we felt that, when it comes to the circular economy agenda, although there’s been lots of excitement from business and governments, that’s largely come from OECD countries. It’s largely framed as a rich country agenda.

“So we were really interested in trying to fill that knowledge gap both in terms of trying to explore what kind of demand there might be for circular economy approaches from stakeholders in developing countries, but also to try to see what leaders and members of the development community are thinking about the circular economy and about where it might complement but also conflict with existing policy priorities.

“A lot of the discussion over the circular economy has tended to focus on the very positive benefits from an environmental perspective and an economic perspective but there are also areas where there are trade-offs and there are important decisions to be made in that context.”

While Lehne acknowledges the desire to create common methodologies and metrics for measuring progress on implementing circular economy initiatives in developing countries, she is keen to stress that it is preferable to not get bogged down in trying to achieve a perfect set of data and tools and instead move policy forward: “There is already a lot of evidence and data out there, so it might be more helpful to start thinking about what proxies we might have so we can move forward on specific types of policy while retaining flexibility and learning as we go, rather than waiting for that ideal data set.”

Circular strategies must include waste management

In response to the briefing paper, Zoe Lenkiewicz, Head of Communications at waste management charity WasteAid UK, welcomed the move to explore greater opportunities for the circular economy in developing countries, but stressed that more emphasis must be placed on waste management, highlighting the social, economic and health impacts of unmanaged waste: “WasteAid UK absolutely supports the spread of initiatives that increase resource efficiency and reduce unmanaged waste in lower-income countries. Managing resources more sustainably is fundamental to a healthy future for everyone.

“The health and environmental consequences of inadequate waste management range from preventable disease to climate change. Children in particular suffer when there is no decent waste management system, with six times the level of respiratory illnesses, doubled levels of diarrhoea, nutritional malabsorption, educational underachievement and stunting. In areas without proper solid waste management children are 4.5cm shorter by the age of eight.

“Sustainable resource management and specific circular economy initiatives are vital if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Until now, this area has been underfunded and we are now hopeful that a stronger evidence base will lead to increased aid investment in resource efficiency and appropriate recycling schemes.”

WasteAid UK works to promote waste management as a crucial feature of national development programmes and this year worked with CIWM to produce ‘Making Waste Work: A toolkit’,which is designed to provide communities with less developed waste management infrastructure the tools and knowledge to employ low-cost ‘waste to wealth’ technologies involving minimal capital investment to reduce waste and turn waste arising into products that can be sold locally.

Earlier this week, WasteAid UK and CIWM co-signed a letter along with Tearfund and the Institute of Development Studies calling for a tenfold increase in official development aid spend on solid waste management in developing countries.

The letter stressed the huge environmental, social and health benefits of increasing aid in the form of waste management saying: ‘Currently, two billion people don’t have their waste collected, causing a public health crisis and polluting our oceans. We must clean up our own act at home, but the best investment the government could make is to spend aid money to address this crisis.

‘At a stroke, this would more than halve the quantities of plastics entering the oceans, and the rate of diarrheal diseases in communities without waste collection, and eliminate the 270,000 deaths a year linked to waste burning. OECD figures show that less than 0.3 percent of official development aid is spent on solid waste management in developing countries; increasing this to three per cent could extend services to all.’ 

The ‘A wider circle? The circular economy in developing countries’ paper can be read and downloaded at the Chatham House website.

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