Building a circular economy: How a new approach to infrastructure can put an end to waste

Embargo: 00:01 Friday 29 November 2019
Libby Peake Libby PeakeHead of resource policy (on maternity leave until October 2022)020 7630

Nearly all Black Friday purchases end up as waste
This Black Friday, on 29 November, over half of shoppers will be buying electronic goods and nearly a third will be buying clothes. [1]
New research shows that up to 80 per cent of these items – and any plastic packaging they are wrapped in – will end up either in landfill, incineration or, at best, low quality recycling, sometimes after a very short life. [2] Most of the resources they are made from will only get one life before being wasted forever.
A circular economic system, where long lasting repairable products are the norm and resources are maintained, reused or recycled back into high quality uses, is the way to avoid this unnecessary waste. It would also avoid the environmental damage this waste of resources causes, from initial raw material extraction to end of life problems like marine plastic pollution.
The current system in England is not set up to be circular, despite recent promises in the government’s resources and waste strategy to “preserve our stock of material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy”. [3] A circular system would involve better design, logistics and infrastructure for repair and reuse, and business models to help reduce unnecessary consumption.
The report finds:
  • Vast amounts of valuable resources are being lost to the economy. Around 80 per cent of household plastics and textiles are landfilled or incinerated and nearly all electronic waste goes to low quality recycling when it enters the waste management system.
  • Eliminating this waste requires a major shift to different infrastructure: up to 80 per cent less residual waste treatment infrastructure would be needed in a circular system for plastic, electronics and clothing. Instead, new business models, facilities and logistics would lower consumption and enable takeback, repair, remanufacture and reuse of products.
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said:
“Black Fridays could look very different in the future. They wouldn’t need to be followed by buyers’ remorse shortly after as low quality products are ditched. The next government needs to kickstart a resource revolution and change the system, starting with the infrastructure that enables a circular economy to thrive. It’s not just good for the environment. People want high quality, long lasting, repairable goods.”
Prof Phil Purnell, convenor of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme, University of Leeds, said:
“There’s plenty of support for the idea of a circular economy, including from government departments and big high street names such as Apple and IKEA. However, by failing to invest in the right infrastructure that supports reduced resource use, we are perpetuating the linear economy. We urgently need to change focus. A high value circular economy could generate billions of pounds for the economy, deliver half a million clean green jobs, and be a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.”

Notes for editors
[2] Building a circular economy was produced by Green Alliance as part of a partnership with the Resource Recovery from Waste programme. The report quantifies the very different sorts of infrastructure the country would need in three different scenarios: continuing to focus on end of life waste management, achieving high recycling or transforming the economy to become truly circular.
[3] HM Government, 2018, Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England. Available at: