Going circular

In a world of limited resources, our ‘throwaway’ habits are fast catching up with us. It’s time to move from a linear economy to a circular one, according to the Green Alliance’s Julie Hill told resource

Julie Hill has been working with Green Alliance for “a shocking amount of time”. It’s hard to believe, but her experience with the environmental think tank stretches back nearly three decades. Over the last 15 years or so, Hill has been working as an associate, developing the organisation’s work on waste and resources, whilst also serving on the boards of both the Environment Agency and the Eden Project (although she makes it clear that she is speaking for Green Alliance in this interview). And if that is not enough, last year she added another string to her bow, publishing The Secret Life of Stuff, a book billed as: ‘A manual for a new material world’.

Throughout our conversation, Hill continually returns to the idea of a circular economy, a theme that features heavily in both her book and in ‘Reinventing the Wheel’, a Green Alliance report on resource security she co-wrote with Hannah Hislop. In the opening of her book, Hill explains the negative impacts of a linear economy: ‘[B]eing linear means discarding products and materials from the economy before their useful lives are over. It also means wasting the other resources that have been used to make and transport those products, such as fuel, water and human labour. It is not just the kind of resources we use but the increasing amount taken that is the issue – the very high throughput of stuff in our ever-growing global economy... This wasteful consumption is putting unbearable strain on the life-support systems of the planet. We don’t tend to see this because of the long journeys the stuff makes to get to us, the many hands it passes through, and prices that fail to reflect the high environmental costs of producing it.’

The obvious answer, then, is to use less stuff more efficiently, to ensure resources continue to circulate until their useful lives are over. And while recycling has a role to play in this, Hill is adamant that it is not the panacea that it is sometimes held up to be; speaking of the European countries that excel at diverting materials from landfill, Hill notes: “I think they all still grapple with the underlying problem of how to get resources to circulate as a seamless and natural part of economic activity, rather than simply adopting recycling policies and targets.”

Of course, a truly circular economy isn’t possible (“It is difficult just simply because of entropy. There must be degradation, there must be loss, there must be dissipation, there must be energy even if it is renewable”), but Hill has many suggestions to set us in the right direction. “I think marketbased solutions are the answer”, she asserts, “but of course they involve regulation.” Hill holds up the Landfill Tax Escalator as an example of a policy that has successfully moved behaviour in a positive environmental direction through economic incentives: “Pricing is key. Pricing drives behaviour, but a calculation of externalities on its own is not necessarily going to do the job... the Landfill Tax is one of the few examples we have where it was actually acknowledged by the Treasury that pricing had to be at a level that changed behaviour. In other words, a level that made it more expensive than the alternative.”

Applying a similar economic and regulatory doctrine to other environmental issues (such as carbon prices) could yield similarly positive results, says Hill, highlighting the need to reward design – and, particularly, the need to reward designing out non-recyclable materials: “We have got to have a clear trajectory in other areas, a clear trajectory that sets certain practices or certain uses with material laws, or says new materials that aren’t recyclable are going to attract some kind of levy that will ramp up. And that gives the incentive for investment because of course, investment decisions are made a long way ahead and you have got to see a certain future.”

Such a policy would, of course, require much greater transparency in supply chains, which would help both consumers and businesses make better environmental decisions, a concept Hill explored in her book: “One of the motivations for the book The Secret Life of Stuff is it is hard for any of us to know the hidden impact of what we buy, and we probably also don’t have time to go into it too much. I think complete transparency for consumers is important, but what is more important is that companies are transparent with themselves. I think there are a lot of instances where firms themselves don’t know their upstream impact.”

Regulation may well be required to ensure this happens because businesses have difficulty going down a more environmentally-friendly sourcing route if it weakens their financial competitiveness: “I keep coming back to that mantra from businesses: ‘We need a level playing field.’ Even if people think about designing things differently, if to actually do it requires huge investment, why should the company do it if their competitors don’t have to do it? ... One way or another, I think that unless there are standards, there will always be those who don’t want to take the radical steps, or who can produce the cheaper, undercutting product which will get in the way of investment.” Hill suggests steps like expanding the EU’s Ecodesign Directive and introducing publically available standards for sustainability could be part of the answer. These would, Hill says, have to be driven initially through public procurement (and by some of the bigger private-sector companies) down private supply chains.

Asked if the so-called ‘greenest government ever’ is poised to lead us in the right direction on this front, Hill seems reluctant to be drawn into criticising what most consider a very easy target indeed: “We have to understand that these are difficult times in which to intervene at all in what business does. I get the sense from the things that Vince Cable and Caroline Spelman said at [a recent Green Alliance conference] that they understand what is at stake, they get the key concepts of a circular economy, they even see what the market failures are, which is always the rationale of any government intervention.”

She does note, however, that government policy certainly needs a bit of flesh on its bones: “What we need is a more developed waste strategy that really outlines what the breakdown between maximum recycling and then energy from waste and residuals and eventually zero landfill would be. I know we have got quite a lot of words around that, but I don’t think that comes through firmly enough to individuals, authorities, or even firms as to what the future looks like.” Hill thinks this may come with the process of preparing a waste prevention strategy by the end of 2013.

A key to securing a more resource-efficient future is, in Hill’s opinion, bioplastics. Getting as close to zero waste as possible will require replacing the few remaining things we can’t recycle with things that we can recycle. Hill says she constantly sees “lots of very prosaic things” in her bin – cling film, mixed plastic and metal-plastic composites – and suggests replacing petro-plastics with compostable plastics would go some way towards solving the problem. “I would love it to be the time of bioplastics. I think we have just got to sort out the labelling and standards and the composting facilities... Very simply, if you have an industry standard that all flexible plastics are compostable, you could solve some of the problems. That would be the way to do it, so you simply know from the physical point of view that anything that is flexible goes with the degradable waste and anything that is rigid is recyclable and goes into the recyclables.”

Such a move would eliminate confusion amongst industry operators and make things “as easy as possible” for the public, something Hill maintains is key in all areas of sustainability: “I think that basic standards should be set elsewhere so that you can take certain things for granted. And I think that the value of telling companies to be transparent for the benefit of consumers actually is that the companies themselves realise what they are doing.” It is something Hill clearly feels strongly about and, indeed, was central to her book: “My whole thesis is we shouldn’t have to worry about this... I want to take it for granted. Not that I don’t care, but I don’t have the time or the information or the mental resources to go down all these routes myself... We need to empower our leadership to take charge of this for us and to make sure we get the right things.”

A world where sustainability can be taken for granted? Now that’s something worth working towards.