It's difficult to sit here and bemoan the work with an organisation like The Ellen McArthur Foundation. It has worked tirelessly these last few years to bring people and businesses together to discuss the so-called circular economy and to promote what might be possible. The image above, from The Great Recovery Project, is a great example of how organisations like this can improve our understanding of the challenges and opportunities.
But while NGOs and academics continue to debate, theorise, imagine and define circularity – and what it might mean to industry, government and to individuals – the talking shop mentality is getting us nowhere. For how many years have the same enlightened individuals been talking about the blue economy, the 3 'R's, industrial ecology, zero waste, or any number of concepts, without them ever really taking off and becoming mainstream?
That's why, when I meet companies that are actually doing rather than talking, I get excited. Veolia has been a beacon of inspirational this past year, totting up a plethora of great projects that are successfully proving that there is another way to deal with waste.
Similarly, the paints and coatings business AkzoNobel – which we have been working with during the past six months – has some wonderful examples of how partnerships can help to ensure the value of materials and resources stays in the chain for as long as possible. André Veneman, Akzo's Director of Sustainability, says its time to eliminate the word waste: "There's no such thing," he tells me. With that mentality, embedded into company processes and culture, it's no wonder they are proving circularity to be a work-in-progress, rather than just a theoretical nice-to-have.
According to the United Nations University, 40% of Europe’s electrical products end up in landfill when they are no longer needed. And yet this huge mountain of e-waste thrown away each year contains 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, and 300 tonnes of gold. A new €2.1m EU-funded project has just been launched to do something about it, with the UK, Germany, Italy and Turkey agreeing to work together to find a solution.
Sadly, it’s an all-too familiar tale. The linear model of ‘take-make-waste’ still dominates consumer behaviour and the way in which businesses operate, regardless of sector.
Yet, circularity seems to have really caught the imagination and is inspiring a new way of doing things. Closing the loop on materials and resources is not just about dealing with waste. It’s also about saving money and building stronger economies based on more resilient and sustainable companies. A recent study by Sheffield University suggests that by 2020 the European economy will have lost around €3.7bn by not making the most of the materials found in e-waste.
The opportunities are abundant.
Check out the Dutch consortium which is finding out if waste can be used as a raw material to produce chemicals. Working with the Canadian company Enerkem, AkzoNobel is looking for ways to manufacture synthesis gas, using domestic waste as a feedstock for making products such as methanol and ammonia.
There is a similar agreement with the Dutch energy business Eneco. By retrofitting one of its biomass facilities to produce steam, as well as electricity, the firm has signed a 12-year deal to buy the ‘waste’ steam that would otherwise have been pumped into the atmosphere. It’s the type of thinking that will help it to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons a year – around 0.1% of the Netherland’s total emissions footprint.
And it is not just upstream that these opportunities are being found. Innovative paints and coatings are being used to improve energy efficiency in buildings, reduce friction of ships in the sea to cut fuel use, and boost durability of bridges by protecting underlying substrates, so rather than lasting 20 years, they last 100 years.
'A little less conversation, a little more action' has been a recurring theme of my editorials these past ten years. But with circularity, it really is about the rolling up of sleeves and finding new ways of creating this new economy, with actions, not talk.
As Venetian says, "waste does not exist. It is time we used our brains to find another way".