The Circular Economy – Where do We Start?

Feb 8, 2019

We are making a mess of our planet. Fact. But we can change the direction we’re going in if we start by recognising where we are, honestly, and then carefully planning how we go forward. You may have heard of the EU Circular Economy Waste Package, but where do you start?  We know what gets measured gets done, and life cycle assessment or LCA is a necessary first step in engaging with the circular economy. Such an assessment highlights environmental hotspots throughout a business’ operations and supply chain and will catalyst a journey into eco-design and ultimately a future economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

At the last Energy Symposium, I opened with a keynote on climate change, but our impact reaches further than that. The world’s population has increased fourfold in the last 100 years, and as we head from 7 billion to 10 or 11 billion by the middle of this century we can expect the global economy, energy consumption and freshwater use to rise further.

At the same time, as the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2018 highlighted last October, humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970. We have flipped biomass on its head in that our activity has reduced the biomass of wild marine and terrestrial mammals by six times while we humans and our livestock have increased by a factor of four and now outweigh all vertebrates besides fish.

Some call this the Great Acceleration, others the Anthropocene epoch, a period in which humans have become a defining global force.

Wow, when you suck it all in, it can be really depressing.

Here’s one solution: We’ve all heard of this circular economy thing, and I like the definition from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation best:

“A framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems”

That all sounds wonderful. But as a business, where do we start?

We know that what gets measured gets done. Our mantra at Sustineo is Sustainability in 3 Steps: Measure, Optimise, Restore. So let’s start with Measure.

It used to be complex and expensive to measure the environmental impact of our operations down to product level. You may remember Tesco abandoning its plans to carbon footprint all of its 70,000 products back in 2012, for example. But with recent developments in cloud-based web platforms this has become more affordable and user friendly than ever.

Life cycle assessment is a method that looks at all the inputs to your operations including business overheads and then allocates them across your facilities, lines and ultimately down to product outputs. It looks upstream as far as raw material extraction and downstream at how your customers use your product and the end of life of that product. Now you can work out the carbon footprint of any of the products coming out of your facility, as well as many other environmental impacts such as marine ecotoxicity, ozone depletion, acidification or eutrophication potential.

The beauty of tracking many environmental impacts in parallel is that you avoid inadvertently causing one negative impact by minimising another: remember the policy push across the EU to switch from petrol to diesel cars? It was great for GHG emissions reduction, but not so good for particulates, NOx, the formation of ground level ozone and ultimately public health.

Once you are measuring your environmental impact across your supply chain and operations then you can focus in on the environmental hotspots and optimise, what some people call “eco-design”. Perhaps you will also discover ways to repurpose your own waste as a resource.

Then, take another look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition of Circular Economy. Perhaps you have now found a way in. Congratulations! You should be one step ahead of your competitors and ready for the EU Circular Economy Waste Package which amends six directives concerning the waste sector and must be implemented into national legislation by 5 July 2020.

Your journey toward a restorative and regenerative business model has begun.


Raoul Empey

Raoul Empey

Raoul is director of Sustineo, a leading Irish sustainability consultancy that provides solutions for businesses to reduce their impact on the environment. He also delivers Climate Action workshops on topics such as net zero targets and carbon offsets.