Global Climate action and sustainable development, Economy and regeneration

What is a circular economy and what can local government do to support growth?

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This article explores the purpose of a circular economy and how it can be used to put an end to the current ‘take-make-waste’ global economic system that is unsustainable. For tangible success within our communities, writer Malcolm Powers argues that local government must be at the centre of this critical change.

The global economic system is inherently wasteful. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, our global economy has operated on a linear ‘take-make-waste’ system. We take raw materials, make products from them and then when we don’t need them any more we throw them away. It has been evident since the publication of ‘The Limits to Growth in 1972 that the Earth has finite resources, and that this approach cannot work in the long-term.

However, our economic system has not evolved. As a result, we have increasing pollution, widespread loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis, estimated greenhouse gas emissions from waste across the UK for 2021 were 17 million tonnes (4% of total emissions). Moving to a circular economy model, where products are shared, reused, repaired, or as a last resort recycled, would be a significant step towards dealing with global challenges.

What’s more, as well as being fundamental to tackling the climate and ecological crises, there is increasing evidence that boosting the circular economy will enable us to tackle a range of social policy challenges that are key for local authorities. A Green Alliance Report suggests that a more ambitious approach to the circular economy could generate up to 450,000 jobs, many in areas that have been identified for ‘Levelling Up’. And, research by WRAP suggests that a more circular approach could help with the cost of living, saving UK households between £2 billion and £8 billion per year.

While there is increasing recognition from UK and devolved governments for the need to shift towards greater circularity, such as Welsh Government’s Beyond Recycling Strategy and Scottish Government’s recently published Circular Economy Bill, the focus very much remains on driving up rates of recycling, with limited resources available for reuse and repair. However, despite this approach, there is much that local government can do now and many councils are already working with businesses, communities and the voluntary sector to move further and faster.

Developing effective partnerships will be essential to enabling greater circularity. Circular Glasgow, established by the city’s Chamber of Commerce works in partnership with Glasgow City Council and Zero Waste Scotland to support businesses to move to a circular model and to support Glasgow’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

For Merton Council, reducing consumption-based emissions through a circular economy model is central to tackling the climate crisis. In partnership with businesses, communities, the voluntary sector and NGOs, the Council has established a number of initiatives such as Morden Library of Things and The Wheel, a waste reduction and circular economy hub for the Borough. In addition to delivering carbon savings, there is a strong focus on helping residents save money.

As with wider climate engagement, there are clear advantages to reframing conversations around the importance of the circular economy by highlighting co-benefits – particularly where gains for communities and individuals can be illustrated. In collaboration with partners, Derry and Strabane Council has put in place policies and plans to increase reuse, promote sustainable food, and reduce waste through their procurement policies. Additionally, by adopting circular economy principles into waste policies, they estimate that they can save £3.1m per year while creating 190 new green jobs.

Despite innovations being piloted by Glasgow, Merton, Derry and Strabane, and many other UK local authorities, the Circularity Gap Report suggests that the UK economy has a long way to go. 90% of the materials used come from virgin sources, 80% of which are from abroad. What’s more, only 7.5% of materials are circled back into the UK economy after use.

As with recycling in the 1980s and 1990s, sharing, reusing, and repairing products – the basis of the circular economy – is currently seen as a niche activity. However, there is ample evidence that moving to a circular economy model will not only help tackle the most significant crises we face but also brings multiple economic and social benefits.

Our attitude to waste needs to shift from it being seen as a problem to appreciating it as a resource. Local government is showing what is possible, innovating not just to reduce waste, but demonstrating how circularity can deliver broader economic and social policy objectives. Nevertheless, driving wide-ranging behaviour change and enabling large-scale investment will require strong signals from the UK and devolved governments in the form of legislation, resources and public education.

Related content

Closing the loop – lessons on making a circular economy work locally – This LGIU member-only 🔒 briefing explores case study examples of circular economies from across the UK, Europe and North America. It identifies the opportunities and challenges that circular economies pose for the local government sector and other key public policy areas. The author writes that ‘to close the loop, local government need to take a holistic and regenerative approach to design, production and consumption’.

Collection: Tackling pollution – This collection showcases a range of LGIU work that explores all things pollution, including air, waste and water. From exclusive LGIU member content 🔒 to our Global Local newsletters, plus articles which are free for anyone to read 🟢, we provide resources to support better policy and practice for your communities.

Interested in unlocking all your LGIU benefits? Find out more about how to become a member here.



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