The circular economy has become such a buzz term in the environmental policy space, but what does it actually mean? In truth, its meaning morphs depending on who you talk to. To many, it is simply about cutting waste through prescriptive recycling targets, but to some it provides an opportunity to change the market for consumer goods indefinitely.
At the European Forum for Manufacturing in European Parliament last week, I learnt that its scope is so much wider than first appears, and the opportunity to reinvent the way we look at products as consumers is very real. I can see why it is a priority for the Dutch Presidency and why done well, it will change the landscape (both physically and metaphorically) forever.
The first step to a circular economy, and it is a major one, is about changing perceptions. Putting aside the notion that we must cast out the old to get the new most up to date item on the shelf. That by returning goods at the end of their days, we are not simply consigning them to the rubbish heap, and that we can still have something shiny and new made from a remanufacturing process. This happens already in the automotive sector, when engines and parts can be reconditioned to be as new once more, in chemical processes, and to a degree in healthcare. We need introduce these ideas to the mainstream, so that remanufactured goods can be understood and seen, not as second-hand inferior items, but as new desirable products.
Before we progress, however, there are many questions that will need to have answers. Who will have ownership and responsibility for the product? How will we decide what the given lifespan of any particular product should be? What incentive is there for consumers to do their bit and return the product to the manufacturer? And will there be a cost-benefit to manufacturers to undertake such a process?
The Commission’s proposal ‘closing the loop – an action plan’ is a framework for how we begin this journey, but we have been here before. There is still a long way to go before manufacturers can buy into this idea as a business opportunity, particularly in an increasingly uncertain and competitive environment. While the theory of a circular economy is a promising one, the practice will take much greater consideration.