You may have heard about the Circular Economy, but what is it? What does it actually look like in practice, and how does it relate to tackling climate change?
These are some of the questions we delved into during our first Egin Learning and Sharing Webinar on the 14th of June, where we heard from three guest speakers and had the chance to share and connect in breakout rooms. Watch the recording of the webinar here: https://youtu.be/Yhiaw-o4bGQ
Circular Economy Innovation Communities
We first heard from Katie Beverley, who is based at Cardiff Metropolitan University and is part of the delivery team for Circular Economy Innovation Communities in the Cardiff Capital Region.
Circular Economy Innovation Communities (CEIC: www.ceicwales.org.uk) is a project that provides public sector organisations in the Cardiff Capital and Swansea Bay regions with the knowledge, skills, experience and ideal environment to collaboratively identify and solve common challenges. Their approach encourages participants to view the challenges through a circular economy lens.
Understanding the Circular Economy
So, what is the circular economy? Katie mentioned how difficult it was to give one definition, as ‘circular economy’ tends to mean slightly different things to different people.
At its core, we could say that the circular economy is a framework that focuses on moving away from the linear model of take, make, use, dispose, and instead creating a system that’s regenerative, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and where waste and pollution are minimised.
For example, extracting resources, such as oil for plastic production, contributes to carbon emissions and resource depletion. When products end up in landfills or incinerators, they release toxic chemicals into the soil or emit greenhouse gases as they decompose or burn. In contrast, in a circular economy, waste becomes a valuable resource: composting food waste to nourish new plants, just as we would see in nature (See: https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/love-food-hate-waste/ to read more about the methane released from decomposing food waste).
Picture source: Sustridge.com
For more information, see:
CEIC’s Approach: Empowering Communities to Embrace Circularity
Katie pointed out that we need to think about being effective with our use of resources, and that means using as little as we possibly can to create as much value as possible.
The Circular Economy can exist on multiple levels, Katie told us – we can look at how a business might become more circular, or how businesses might work together to create value through the effective use of resources. What the CEIC programme focused on was how an entire region can become more circular.
Over a 10-month period, CEIC guided third sector and public organisations through a design process aimed at fostering circularity. Instead of telling organisations what to do, CEIC helped each organisation to work out the best approach for them and to see what is possible – for example by going on visits to relevant sites and showing examples of things that are happening already.
Katie emphasised that we should not think of the Circular Economy as a way of sorting out and solving the problems we’ve created, but as a way of making sure they don’t happen in the first place:
“We should see [the Circular Economy] as a massive innovation opportunity, a massive way of rethinking how we do business, saving ourselves money, creating better services, and doing things much more effectively.”
We then heard from Janine Cusworth, the founder/Director of Resource (resourcewales.com), a social and environmental enterprise based in Denbigh, North Wales. Janine is also one of our Egin Peer Mentors. Resource was founded in June 2020 as a response to the need for flexible and adaptable activities for adults that experience barriers to employment opportunities and to drive forward the local interest for sustainable activities. Resource also focuses on inclusion of people who are marginalised from the labour market, working closely with people with disabilities, mental health needs, and neurodiversity.
Repurposing and Reducing Waste
Resource implements tangible activities to contribute to a circular economy. Their reMakery initiative engages volunteers in repurposing wood and upcycling items, diverting waste from landfills. They also have a reUse store and a community Replastics processing project where they take items that aren’t usually or easily recycled by local authorities, shred them down and reform them into other useful objects such as plant pots and clock faces.
Another project is the “Bws Benthyg” (Borrow Bus)”, a community sharing project that travels around four towns in Northeast Wales. Janine shared: “People can borrow or hire items from the bus for a low cost. It includes items such as household tools, gardening tools, and exciting things like popcorn machines! We hope that this project prevents items from going to landfill, promotes sharing within the community, and contributes to a circular economy.”
Janine also shared some of the challenges they have faced in getting projects going:
“Some of the challenges are around community confidence. Getting people involved has been a real challenge. We know from research that it takes people three visits to the bus before they actually sign up as a member… It feels like it’s been a long haul to build the momentum because, in effect, although it is a borrowing project, it is also creating behaviour change. Instead of just borrowing or buying something or ordering something on Amazon, it’s about planning ahead, thinking about it, and finding more sustainable ways to get the items we need.”
Greenstream Flooring CIC
Last but not least, we heard from Becky Lythgoe, a facilitator, trainer, and mentor who has dedicated over ten years to working in the social enterprise sector. Becky shared her experience as a former Director at Greenstream Flooring CIC, a member of Circular Communities Cymru, located in the Rhondda. Their mission revolves around maximizing community benefits by reusing and selling flooring, primarily by diverting carpet tiles from ending up in landfills and reselling them both commercially and to support people to access flooring.
Becky shared with us some startling facts: an estimated 400,000 tons of waste carpet is thrown away every year in the UK, which is an estimated 1 to 1.5 million carpet tiles or an area the size of Birmingham – with almost 130,000 tons being incinerated, according to Zero Waste Europe. This releases toxic chemicals and significant carbon emissions; as of 2018, only 2% of all carpet tiles were reused.
Carpet tiles are not designed to be recycled, so Greenstream Flooring CIC looked at ways that they could repurpose carpet tiles that were often in perfectly good condition – often being taken out of commercial buildings because they wanted to change the colour scheme or freshen up their look, not because there was anything wrong with the carpet.
We heard about some of the challenges that Greenstream Flooring faced. One challenge was shifting mindsets – people were often wary of buying “used” flooring, even if there was nothing wrong with it. Despite those challenges, over a 15-year period, they managed to divert over 750,000 carpet tiles from landfill – around 100 football fields of carpet! They have also given away free flooring to people who needed it: housing associations replace flooring between tenants, meaning that people often move into housing to find bare concrete floors. Few could afford the cost of carpeting their homes, which also means it’s harder to heat their properties – leading to more energy use, as well as higher costs.
What does Circular Economy mean to you?
It was clear from our discussion that the Circular Economy means many things – and that trying to pin down one definition can be difficult. It also reminded us that shifting people’s mindsets can be hard – after all, we are so used to throwing things away when we don’t need them anymore that we often forget that there is no “away”. “Away” often means Global South countries, where everything from our electronic waste to plastic that we thought we’d recycled ends up being incinerated or dumped, causing all sorts of environmental and health problems (source: Greenpeace, Earth Island Journal).
We might not be able to reuse everything, but the circular economy is about shifting the way we think about resources. If you’d like to find out about other inspiring circular economy examples, you may find these links helpful:
Circular Economies Scotland – some inspiration from Scotland!
Are you interested in reducing your community’s impact on the environment through turning ‘waste’ into resource? Do you have ideas around how you might make your community more circular? If you’re in Wales and you’re new to climate action, get in touch with us to see whether you’re eligible for the Egin Peer Mentoring programme. Your community can receive up to 3 days of mentoring from somebody who’s already worked on bringing circular economy ideas into their own communities (including Janine or Becky from our webinar)!
The next Egin Learning and Sharing webinar will be on the 21st of September, 2-3:30pm on the topic of Community Climate Action – real examples from Wales.