Has the circular economy backlash already begun?
Buzzwords come and go in the world of resources. Waste industry expert Ray Georgeson asks whether the backlash against the 'circular economy' already begun
One of the few advantages of advancing middle age and achieving a degree of longevity around our sector is the ability to identify the cycles of activity and changing nomenclature that characterise the policymaking process and maybe even the modernisation of our thinking and doing. The cycle of reinvention is steady and no doubt unfinished. Let me remind you of some of the highlights.
Waste paper became recovered paper. Reclamation became recycling. Binmen became refuse collection operatives. The National Association of Waste Disposal Companies became the Environmental Services Association. The Independent Waste Paper Processors Association became the Recycling Association. The Composting Association became the Association for Organics Recycling and then, as part of the Renewable Energy Association, the Organics Recycling Group. Recycling became sustainable waste management. Recycling also became closing the loop. Recycling market development became demand- pull measures. Sustainable waste management became resource efficiency. Resource efficiency became resource productivity (sometimes). Resource productivity became the circular economy.
The circular economy. Ah yes, the shiny new kid on the block just a few short years ago, thanks to the popularising efforts of Dame Ellen MacArthur (notwithstanding the pioneering work of Professor Walter Stahel who must be properly acknowledged for this). The axles on the circular economy bandwagon creaked wearily as all parties jumped upon it. When a major waste management company produces marketing material showing its incinerators as an integral part of the circular economy, you know that something went wrong somewhere. I don’t claim innocence here, mind you, as even my own recycling and reprocessing sector (through the Resource Association) insists that reprocessors are the ‘beating heart’ of the circular economy and deserve recognition for their role in the management of materials.
The circular economy still generates mixed responses. For some, the emergence of the term was little more than a rebadging exercise with hints of the Emperor’s New Clothes about it. For others, it represents a vanguard of new thinking and action to transform our ‘take, make and dispose’ pattern of economic development from the Industrial Revolution onwards into something genuinely necessary for the 21st century.
My question today is: has the circular economy backlash already started before the thing has even properly got going (at least in England)? I was prompted to say this by a notable intervention from our current Defra Minister Dr Therese Coffey who, fairly early on in her tenure made a point of saying she didn’t like the sound of the circular economy, it didn’t sound like it meant growth and progress and that she would have to “read up on it”. A rare admission from a minister, but fair enough. The theme has carried on, as she continues to be sceptical of the term but acknowledges it has some purchase. Because people listen carefully for the nuances in ministerial statements, these comments certainly caused some ripples.
Recent policy output appears to take up the cudgels. In a provocative report, think tank Policy Exchange revived resource productivity as a desirable economic good, and this is echoed in various policy pronouncements from the industry as they make their respective pleas to the political parties for their general election manifestos. Policy Exchange went as far as to title its report ‘Going Round in Circles?’ and link the circular economy with the EU in a less than complimentary way.
Perhaps in England, the circular economy might well be ditched along with the EU? It seems to have some resonance with the current political leaders as they try to forge the notion of a post-Brexit freedom to re-interpret environment policy. Many environmental NGOs and even some business leaders have expressed their concerns about any possible ditching of environmental protections should Brexit become a reality. Only time (and votes) will tell.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Government won ‘The Circulars’ award from the World Economic Forum in Davos for its leading contribution to the development of the circular economy...
My own feeling is that the concerns articulated by English ministers may have more to do with their positioning on Europe more than the subject matter of resources itself. Progress on resource management in the UK has been inextricably interlinked with the embedding of EU waste legislation and the building of a regulated industry around it. This is widely acknowledged by many in our industry.
So, maybe the future of the circular economy and any possible backlash is more tied to the Brexit debate than many might care to accept. For me, the circular economy backlash has started (in England). Welcome to the circular economy fightback!