The Swedish government is investigating how it can promote a ‘circular economy’. Now, what is a circular economy? While it is not so well defined, I’d say it’s an ambition to keep materials in a loop. Nature tends to work with cycles (the carbon cycle for example). Businesses, the circular economy proponents say, should mimic such systems. In a circular economy, waste should become input to new production. In addition, there’s the idea that sharing and renting is better than owning things (I’d like to see some evidence for this).
The Swedish government’s investigation into the circular economy resulted in a 400 pages report, released last week. The report suggests tax deductions for rental, second hand and repair services, which sounds like more of what the Swedish government has already done. Other suggestions are for example to increase access to carpools and to facilitate prevention of waste (the latter is always a good idea).
When I encountered the ‘circular economy’ concept, I was initially a sceptic. It might be an academic instinct to question terms the industry has invented. ‘Isn’t this just a new fancy concept for recycling?’. Lately, however, I have slightly changed my mind. The more I learn about the waste issue the more it seems necessary that companies ‘design out waste’ (as the circular economy proponents put it). We need to have a plan for what happens to the materials and products when they are discarded. We need to make sure that our products are safely recyclable and can potentially be recycled more than once. If the circular economy concept is helpful for businesses (or states!) in order to work on these issues, then that’s more important than the lack of definition.
I also find the circular economy system diagram useful. The ways in which materials circulate are put into a hierarchy where maintaining products (such as mending) is more desirable than recycling. This seems very reasonable.
Now my research area is really the measurement of such initiatives. And, as it happens regularly, I got a really good question from a student some week ago: “How can we measure whether a business is circular?” While businesses are quite different from nation states, the Swedish government’s report has in fact suggested some indicators for whether a country is ‘circular’. The proposed indicators measure the amount of recycled materials, the use of raw materials and the amount of waste produced. These are standard indicators that companies disclose in their sustainability reports. In a business setting, such indicators are nothing new. However, they might be more difficult to calculate on a national level. The government report suggests no indicators for the sharing, renting or repairing ideas of the circular economy.
Clearly, this is an area that needs some more work. Now if the Swedish government would want some help with measuring their circular economy ambitions, I am here to help 😉