Why the circular economy package is a step forward

Posted by Ian Ellison on 28th January 2016
First published in: BlogActiv

ian ellison jlr

So 2015 ended with both COP 21 and the revised EU Circular Economy (CE) package. Both have their critics, in terms of their capacity to provide absolute and complete solutions to the sustainability challenges we face. Each is, to some degree, a compromise in the face of adversarial politics – some saying it’s all too little, too late and others concerned about the costs of implementation and transition etc. As a sustainability practitioner and engineer, I have an interest in both camps. I have to actually find ways to implement the ideas in the real world, keeping all parties on board, delivering what planetary science tells us we need, whilst maintaining a valid business case and maintaining customer interest. So my acid test of the likes of COP21 and the EU CE package is: have they made my job any easier?

In the case of the CE package, I believe it has. At Jaguar Land Rover, we work across our value chains to try to create sustainable solutions and we have learnt many valuable lessons on the way. We know that collaboration is key. The package aligns encouragingly with findings in our upcoming paper ‘Collaboration for a Closed Loop Value Chain’ (developed with our partners Novelis and CISL). Whilst CE is financially self-sustaining in the long term, getting the right stakeholders together and investing in the initial change is greatly accelerated with some ‘seedcorn’ funding so it’s good to see the package has funding.

The package is also not overly command-and-control, in that, whilst there are some hard targets, there are also provisions for learning and the sharing of learning (BREFs) and a focus on finding solutions in traditional problem areas such as plastics and electronics.

Key themes such as design for durability, reparability, recyclability and ecodesign, are covered. There is recognition that we need whole-system change and even reference to the need to ‘facilitate industrial symbiosis’. There is also reference to bio-based resources which have enormous potential but remain significantly under-exploited still. However, whilst the Commission has touched on a lot of important principles at a high level, it’ll be important that it now works to develop these principles (such as on Eco-Design, Quality Standards and Extended Producer Responsibility) in more detail so that the package can really support industry in developing greater levels of resource efficiency.

Key stakeholders have been consulted and there are clear plans for further consultation, as the package is deployed and further developed. It is this process of ongoing collaboration and consultation that is so critical to the successful delivery of CE. We need to maintain openness to understand the issues in parts of the value chain that are remote in time and space, to as to enable end-to-end, whole system improvements. Such consultation does take longer but the benefits of a working CE are worth it and it’s much too easy to rush to a rapid, ‘aggressive’ piece of command and control legislation that turns out to have many unintended consequences, often defeating the original goal.

Whilst some have expressed desire for more aggressive targets, to secure the end-game, it is not the end-game that I feel is most critical. We can learn from domains where there has been rapid change that has exceeded all plans and expectations. For example, the uptake of the internet, smartphones or the recent, rapid fall in the cost of solar panels. None of these required aggressive, legislative targets to deliver breath-taking rates of change. The key was to create the conditions where the necessary innovations can come together and provide solutions to problems that we all face in our everyday lives. At that point adoption and innovation reach a tipping point and become self-sustaining. With less waste, less pollution, more efficient resource use, lower costs, more jobs, a better protected environment and more durable goods providing better utility, CE is well able to take off at the exponential rates seen so often in the IT sector. We just need to provide the conditions and hard work to reach the tipping point.

To that end, it falls to practitioners of sustainability, such as myself, to demonstrate to business that there is profit adopting CE principles, to demonstrate to consumers that they get better products and services, within a less compromised environment and to push the ideas through far enough and fast enough to relieve the strains on the global environment. We therefore must commit ourselves to this mission, with the CE package providing just one of many tools at our disposal.

Ian Ellison is Sustainability Manager at Jaguar Land Rover.