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The circular economy: who’s really best placed to deliver it?

Iain Gulland - Director, Zero Waste Scotland | 15 Sep 14

The circular economy.  We’re all talking about it.  Most of us are convinced by its necessity.  And some of us are even trying to adopt its principles.  But who’s really best placed to deliver it?

We need to move on from the vision and rhetoric of a circular economy, to the practicalities of what can be done, and by whom.  

I’m convinced that entrepreneurs – with their drive and ambition – will be the beating heart of this movement.  By capturing the imagination of those in business, large and small, we will create the most radical change – getting companies to fundamentally rethink how they operate and who they work with.  

But if we want to accelerate that change, other factors can help.  

Some of that will be from the top down, whether that’s through legislation, regulation, procurement reform, or finance.  These factors can set the right conditions to encourage innovation and ensure good ideas are supported.  

But what is the role of the waste or (now more appropriately called) resource management industry, for whom the movement of materials through the economy is its bread and butter?  

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, I’ll attend the industry’s flagship RWM event.  I’ll challenge those attending to consider what role they could play – and indeed, what opportunities they could seize – in the shift to a circular economy. 

We already know that the resource management industry is capable of achieving incredible, transformative change.  It is constantly evolving and has driven the change in mind-set from waste to resources.  In my opinion, the industry has the skills, calibre, and vision to do even more and enable the shift towards a circular economy in ways which will have far-reaching impacts on the whole materials supply chain.  

Businesses considering becoming more circular will need logistics partners who can give them confidence that products and materials can be effectively and dynamically ‘stewarded’. This is about more than high quality recycling. It’s about being responsive and flexible to meet customers’ needs and looking ‘up the pipe’ to deliver the resource inputs businesses need, rather ‘down the pipe’ to those who want to get rid of something.  This might also mean thinking about small, tailored opportunities with dedicated partnerships instead of ever-increasing economies of scale.  

I want to be clear that what I’m describing isn’t about repackaging current activities as ‘circular’.  The future will not be so much orientated about materials but in the service being provided. Just as the circular economy focuses on performance rather than ownership, the challenge for the industry is to resist exploiting the value of the materials they handle and focus on performance of service delivery in line with the needs of a circular economy. 

This shift won’t be overnight, but I’m convinced the circular economy will happen regardless, and the resource management industry – if it anticipates new market demands – can help accelerate it whilst maintaining its own profitability.  

At Zero Waste Scotland we have the opportunity to facilitate this movement – bringing our funding and other support to the existing resource management sector together in parallel with wider business-led change and other ’regenerative’ industries like repair and remanufacturing.   

If you’re going to RWM, come and speak to us there. We would be keen to talk through the opportunities we see here in Scotland as well as hear from you on your plans and ideas with the hope that we can help make things happen.  Find us on stand 4M36 from Tuesday through to Thursday.

You can also come hear me speak on Wednesday in the Circular Economy Connect theatre from 12:25 -13.10 on the CEO Panel, talking about how the resource management sector can lead by example to help create the circular economy.


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