Textiles are particularly poor. The average UK citizen buys 26.7 kg of clothing annually – the most in Europe – and one million tonnes are discarded each year in England. Most binned clothes are incinerated, and increasingly less are recycled (from 17% to 11% since 2010). The recovered fibres are normally suitable only for lower-value applications, such as carpets and insulation. New clothes rarely contain more than a few percent of recycled material, sustaining demand for virgin natural resources.
In a circular economy that relies on recycling to close loops, people aren’t forced to change how much stuff they buy, but manufacturers and waste management companies would change more radically. For example, drinks bottles often use different plastics for the body, cap and label. If these mix in the recycling process they reduce the quality of the recycled material, but separating them is awkward. All products should be redesigned to ensure they are recyclable.
Manufacturers should use more recycled material in new products too, creating markets for recovered materials. Massive investment in recycling infrastructure would be required though. Just to meet plastic packaging recycling targets, more than 50 new recycling plants would be needed in England.
Although recycling normally is less energy-intensive than processing virgin resources, it still uses a lot of energy which produces carbon emissions. Even if all recycling used renewable energy, the new infrastructure would require vast amounts of virgin materials to be built. In developed countries the total amount of materials within the economy has to be reduced.
3. A sustainable circular economy
To achieve a truly sustainable circular economy, consumption and production practices would need to change together. A sustainable circular economy involves designing and promoting products that last and that can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. This retains the functional value of products, rather than just recovering the energy or materials they contain and continuously making products anew.
We have to do more with less material and consume responsibly. For example, people in the UK should buy fewer new clothes and wear what they already have more often. Repairing and restyling our favourite clothes can also help to use them more and waste less.
New ways of consuming opens up opportunities for circular economy business models, such as leasing clothes and producing things that people need on demand only. Business models based on reuse, leasing, repair and remanufacturing could generate four times more jobs than waste treatment, disposal and recycling. They generate local economic activity, helping to strengthen relations within communities.
The transition towards an increasingly sustainable circular economy radically changes the purpose of the economy. Anne Velenturf, Author provided