Gwen Buck, Policy adviser, Green Alliance discusses why we need a fully circular economy
Whilst the UK starts to put the policies in place to get on track to its net zero goal by 2050, attention is often on the more visible things like renewable technologies, and the more contentious issues such as the shifts in behaviour. However, we often forget to mention the resources that are needed to build the economy in the first place. Whilst resource efficiency is often overlooked, it is a virtually untapped, but potentially powerful tool for tackling carbon emissions.
A circular economy as part of a programme of dramatically cutting resource use could not only strengthen the UK economy and support jobs in regions across the UK, but also put the UK at the forefront of the global low carbon transition.
Supporting a green economy recovery
As the UK starts to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, it finds itself in a place of economic uncertainty and huge unemployment. A transformation to a more circular economy, by encouraging and investing in recycling, buying services rather than products, biorefining, reuse and remanufacturing, could create more than half a million jobs.
And improving resource efficiency could add £10 billion a year in profits to the bottom line of UK manufacturing firms. What is more, a transformation to a more circular economy, by encouraging and investing in recycling, buying services rather than products, biorefining, reuse and remanufacturing, would create jobs at different skill levels right across the country. In many cases, these would be jobs created outside London and the South East and would therefore also help to support the governments levelling up programme.
Securing the future of net zero
A circular economy is also vital to the shift to net zero. We cannot assume we will have the resources to deploy the renewable technologies we want to unless we get much wiser about how we use, reuse, and recycle materials in the first place.
For example, the UK is currently 100 per cent reliant on imports of the essential critical minerals (CRMs) needed to produce net zero infrastructure like wind turbines and electric vehicles. However, the human and environmental costs of extracting these resources are significant. For example, cobalt which is vital for EV batteries, has been associated with human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which provides more than half of the world’s supply. Furthermore, mining a tonne of some rare earth elements, which are needed to make both EV motors and wind turbines, can produce up to 2,000 tonnes of hazardous waste.
A transformation to a more circular economy, by encouraging and investing in recycling, buying services rather than products, biorefining, reuse and remanufacturing, could create more than half a million jobs
A 2018 Green Alliance report, conducted for our Circular Economy Task Force, demonstrated that, by acting now to create markets for secondary CRMs, the government could ensure that resources from discarded products, which would otherwise be wasted, could reduce our reliance on imports. Reused or recycled material could supply over a third of domestic rare earth element demand and nearly half of domestic cobalt demand for low carbon industries by 2035.
This can also help to lower supply chain risks to volatile resources markets and increase business resilience. Better product design and reusing highly quality domestically recovered materials, product parts and products, instead of using new resources, would ensure more resilient supply chains by reducing the need for the materials and providing a domestic source of reprocessed material to meet some of the demand.
What needs to change
Despite the clear benefits of moving to a circular economy, it has received very little government funding, beyond that for research. At Green Alliance, we want to see an investment of at least £400 million over the next five years as a kick starter fund to help businesses to deliver carbon savings and increase productivity through innovative business models and better design, reuse, and refurbishment, as well as high-quality recycling services.
Whilst we know that a shift to net zero will require huge effort from all sectors of the economy, we have a tool in our armoury to help us achieve it – a circular economy.