There’s a new economic model in town which could revolutionise the way you run your company – saving you money, making you more economically resilient, reducing your environmental impact and even creating new jobs and opportunities. It’s called the ‘Circular Economy’. Toby Venables talks to Katie Thomas, who leads the ambitious Circular Peterborough programme, about how businesses can get involved and why it’s good for the city.
What is a ‘circular city’?
Broadly it’s about making the best use of resources locally and circulating resources in the city for as long as possible. It’s about how we can extend the life of products and other resources, and think about opportunities to repair them and minimise the amount of stuff we are sending to landfill. But it’s also about people, making sure that communities are better connected. With the growing scarcity of raw materials and increasing environmental problems associated with the current linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model, adopting a circular economy keeps resources circulating at their highest value and utility.
Does this tie in with Peterborough’s Environment Capital ambition?
It very much ties in with that ambition. That means living within the resources of one planet by 2050. At the moment, the average UK resident would need three planets worth of resources to be sustain their current lifestyles, so we really need to change our consumption patterns and how we use resources. That’s a key aim of the Environmental Capital mission, and a Circular City model offers a way of using our resources more efficiently and productively, so we can achieve that.
“It’s different from many other environmental initiatives in that it has a really strong business case behind it…”
Businesses get a lot of advice and support, especially with regard to environmental issues, so what’s different about this?
It’s different from many other environmental initiatives in that it has a really strong business case behind it. Put simply, it makes good financial sense for businesses to make the most of their resources and not rely so much on raw materials. With those rawmaterials going up in price it also makes sense for businesses to look at options for creating products that can be remanufactured – basically, broken down and re-used. For example, H&M have their Close the Loop programme, encouraging people to return their unwanted clothing to local stores, which are then recycled and used to make new clothes.
Then there are more complex examples, like Perkins Engines, who have actually been remanufacturing their engines and engine parts since the 1940s. This involves a take back scheme where the customer returns old engines or associated parts once they have finished with them, and then through clever product design, Perkins is then able to recover the core components to use in new engines. Consequently, Perkins requires substantially fewer raw materials and these cost savings are passed on to their customers. Everybody benefits. That’s the real strength of the circular economy. It’s not about sideline environmental methods, it’s about really taking it into the core of your business, and essentially changing your business model.
Another business model that is becoming popular around the world is making a product and leasing it, instead of selling it. At the moment, things like washing machines and dishwashers are designed to last little more than a couple of years, but if businesses retain ownership of that product and lease it out, they have more of an incentive to make the product last longer, and to offer repair and maintenance services which in turn create better relationships with their customers. There are also companies setting up that focus on recovering items like old mobile phones and computers, and extracting rawmaterials from them. In fact, Japan is now planning to take thousands of discarded mobile phones and pieces of computer equipment, extract the tiny quantities of gold from each one and use that to make the medals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That demonstrates how much valuable rawmaterial is being discarded! So, worldwide, there are already lots of businesses making the most of these opportunities, and although the UK government hasn’t taken a lead role in that development, there are now a lot of companies willing to invest in it.
“Individual cities such as Peterborough, London and Glasgow are leading the way”
What impact is Brexit likely to have on all this?
We’re really not sure yet… The European Commission sees circular economies very much as the future, and is planning on developing monitoring systems for countries to measure their progress with regard to developing circular economies, but as we are now leaving the EU we might not be part of that. At the moment in the UK it seems to be individual cities such as Peterborough, London and Glasgow that are leading the way, rather than it being government-led. But it will be interesting to see what happens. The whole idea of circular economy applied at a national level is that you use your existing resources more efficiently and productively – in a sense, decouple economic growth from resource consumption – and the overall aim of that is to create a more resilient economy. But that also means that if the UK doesn’t start embracing circular economy principles, we will risk becoming less competitive than other countries that are going down that route.
So, if Peterborough pioneers this anyway, that makes the city more competitive than other cities, and businesses within the city more competitive?
Exactly. There is so much opportunity, including job creation. Potentially you could be taking something that a business normally regards as waste and building a business off the back of that. One of the things we are looking at right now is whether we can use coffee waste to grow mushrooms. Doing something like that you’d then be able to sell the mushrooms, and that is creating jobs in the city. There’s also the example of Peterborough Reuse, making use of coffee sacks that would normally go into landfill, but creating jobs at the same time. They were set up a few years ago, but they’re one of our key examples of the circular economy in action. It’s about identifying those opportunities.
Presumably this also makes the city more resilient if the economy takes a dip?
Yes. 100%. If your business is less reliant on raw materials, then straight away you’ll be making the business more resilient to change. That’s one of the things the circular economy is best for. But it can help socially, too. In Peterborough there are around 130 different languages spoken, and one of the other things the circular economy can do is increase connectivity between different communities and groups within the city. One of the new projects that is really interesting is the idea of a library of ‘things’ – basically a library, but instead of borrowing books, you can borrow household items that you wouldn’t need every day. A jack for your car, a lawn mower, power tools… There was a study done on power drills which showed that in average they were used for about 20 minutes of their lives! The fact that we buy so many of these things perhaps also reflects the way society has changed – that we don’t know our neighbours as well as we used to, so we don’t borrow as often as we used to. But by creating a Library of Things, a project led by Cross Keys Homes, we could provide a space for people to get to know the other people in their communities. We are very much looking to explore how circular economy principles can be applied at the community level to strengthen social ties and improve citizen wellbeing, which would add to Peterborough’s pioneering reputation.
So If I were a business person interested in pursuing this further, what should I do next?
The first and probably easiest thing is to join Share Peterborough, which is an online platform for businesses in the community to share resources that they no longer need or rarely use. It could be old office furniture, old computers – even meeting spaces and car parking spaces. And people’s skills as well. For example, if a legal business needs some marketing expertise, and another business needs legal advice, they could do a skills swap. It’s a really valuable project with the potential to unlock a whole host of free resources within the city, increasing productivity and efficiency as well as minimising waste. Even if it is as simple as you having 200 cardboard boxes you don’t want, another business might have a good use for those. Normally a business would have to pay a company to pick them up and get rid of them, but this way they may actually get some money from them. So, Share Peterborough can also help you get rid of things you don’t need, or gain access to things you do need, possibly without having to buy them outright. They could also sign up to our Circular Peterborough commitment, and become part of our progress towards becoming a circular city. Key to this is looking for opportunities to apply our seven practical steps to becoming a circular city (our 7 Rs – see below), from rethinking how we use and value resources to recovering items when they do reach the end of their life. We want to continue working with businesses to make their journey towards a more circular way of working really easy, developing simple tools and guides.
Our Circular City ambitions have the power to create a more competitive economy in Peterborough, whilst simultaneously having positive social and environmental impacts. We have established ourselves as a front runner city in the circular economy transition, alongside global cities such as New York, London and Vancouver and we want all of Peterborough’s businesses to share in this success!
- To find out more about Circular Cities and Circular Peterborough, visit: www.futurepeterborough.com/circular-city
- To find out more about Share Peterborough, visit: www.sharepeterborough.com
- Circular Peterborough is part of the Future Peterborough Project which is run jointly by Peterborough City Council and Opportunity Peterborough. The project is funded through a Future Cities Demonstrator grant that was awarded to Peterborough in 2013 from Innovate UK
THE 7 RS
There are some practical steps that we can all take to embark on the Circular City journey; these steps can drive the more effective use of our finite materials and help create a more sustainable economy, society and environment within Peterborough.
We can think differently about resources, remembering they’re not only materials and products, but also capital and people. We can challenge why things are done the way they are and look for more economically viable and sustainable solutions for the products and services that surround us.
This means creating things that last longer and are easier to upgrade, repair, pull apart and reuse. Think about your phone, what if it could be repaired instead of thrown away, and once out of service, wouldn’t it be better to recover all the precious and rare components in it to make new ones?
03 REPURPOSE, RE-USE & SHARE
We tend to use things for only a short fraction of time. We should seek to maximise products’ and services’ lifecycles. What you don’t want or need anymore can still be very valuable for others. You can share or swap underused items or items you don’t need anymore rather than throwing them away. Share Peterborough, an online B2B platform where you can share and source resources with other organisations in the city, launched in 2016 to facilitate this. You can also simply donate resources, or sell and buy second-hand products.
Before filling up your bin, seek opportunities to repair broken items. As a manufacturer you can share user-guides on how to repair your products easily. As a customer, you can learn how to mend your broken items using online tutorials.
This is an exciting economic opportunity for companies. Remanufacturing means taking back items once they reach their end of life, recovering the usable components or materials in them and then producing new ones with the recoveredmaterials. Take-back schemes and leasing rather than buying products offer great incentives for both businesses and their clients.
If your items can’t be repaired, reused or remanufactured, then it’s time to recycle. Lots of everyday items can be recycled including paper, plastic, metals, electronic items and many more.
Every item retains a level of value within it, even at the end of its life. In Peterborough, we have our own Energy Recovery Facility which diverts 90% of residual household waste from landfill and provides energy to 15,000 homes in the city. The facility accepts commercial waste too.
Part of the Circular Peterborough Commitment involves pledging to adopt these practical steps wherever possible.