POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Designing a Circular Economy

Published Monday, September 26, 2016

Circular economies recover resources at their highest quality and keep them in circulation for longer. Shifting to this model could alleviate concerns arising from current approaches to material use, such as resource insecurity and pollution. This POSTnote outlines what a circular economy could look like and summarises some of the benefits of, and challenges to, creating one.

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Current approaches to product use are largely linear (make, use and dispose) resulting in valuable materials being wasted. A circular approach uses restoration and recovery processes to increase the lifespan of products, components and materials. This goes beyond current recycling, which has largely focused on ‘easy wins’ in waste streams, such as paper, as end-of-life circular products are designed to be an input for new industry. Circular systems incorporate a range of activities that reduce the demand for material inputs and recover/reuse materials already in the system.

However, as the cost of waste management is borne by stakeholders other than producers, there is little incentive to design for better product reuse and disassembly.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • In a circular economy, reusing products, components and materials keeps them at their most useful and valuable. As a result waste is minimised.
  • Moving to this model could create new economic and employment opportunities and provide environmental benefits through improved materials and energy use.
  • Changes to product design and ownership, as well as focusing on access to services, are key to enabling circular businesses.
  • Establishing a circular economy will require voluntary action, government intervention and international co-operation.
  • Strategies differ across the UK, as policy areas are spilt between government departments and devolved administrations.
  • Barriers to this economic transition have been identified, such as achieving economies of scale in recovery processes.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Professor Dale Southerton, The University of Manchester
  • Dr Dominic Hogg, Eunomia*
  • Dr Aiduan Borrion, University College London
  • Dr Ben Croxford, University College London
  • Dr Nick Voulvoulis, Imperial College London*
  • Dr Teresa Domenech , University College London
  • Dustin Benton, Green Alliance*
  • Hannah Schellander, Defra*
  • Jane Stratford, Defra*
  • Jocelyn Blériot, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
  • John Waterworth, DAERA*
  • Jonny Hazell, Green Alliance
  • Dr Lee Davies, Defra*
  • Libby Forrest, Environmental Service Association*
  • Pat Jennings, CIWM
  • Patrick Mahon, WRAP*
  • Professor Martin Charter, University of the Creative Arts*
  • Professor Raimund Bleischwitz, University College London
  • Simon Johnson, Defra*
  • Sonika Sidhu, Local Government Association
  • Steve Lee, CIWM

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

POSTnotes POST-PN-0536

Authors: Jonathan Wentworth; James Burgon

Topics: Pollution, Waste management

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.