What does Brexit mean for a circular economy?

Brexit Uk Eu Referendum Concept Cut Great Britain Apart From ResFor the last six months, barely a day has gone by without the B word – Brexit – being mentioned by the media. The debate before the vote was ugly: rather than communicating their positive visions of what the UK’s future would look like, either in or out of the EU, the main campaigners – on both sides – resorted to scaremongering tactics. A symptom of this ‘post-truth politics’, as it has been termed, was that many people felt they did not have enough information to make an informed choice, so they voted with heart over head.

One saving grace of the ‘leave’ campaign being based on what they didn’t want was that it gave those of us who cared about creating a fair and just society – through responsible and sustainable business – an opportunity to create a positive vision of what a post-Brexit UK would look like. As the process to leave the European Union begins, we need to make our voices heard now; by doing so, we can maximise this opportunity and can shape Brexit to ensure it happens in a way that will provide long-term and sustainable societal benefits.

The EU has been responsible for much of the sustainability legislation implemented in the UK. While in some cases, the UK’s domestic law already goes beyond what is required by the EU (for example, the UK’s Climate Change Act sets more ambitious long-term carbon-reduction targets than European law does), there are other areas where the loss of European support could be highly damaging, should the UK not continue to prioritise these areas. The circular economy is one such area.

A ‘Circular Economy’ is one in which an economic system is designed to have restorative resource flows – similar to how a natural ecosystem operates – in order to conserve the planet’s resources. This concept has been gaining momentum over the last few years (thanks, in no small part, to the EU’s Circular Economy Package, which was adopted in December 2015).

The package includes

  • Funding of more than €650 million, under the Horizon 2020 for circular economy projects
  • Strategies and working plans to integrate the Circular Economy design into industry
  • Revised regulations to remove barriers to implementing circular approaches

An example of how the EU package could be used to create circular systems can be found in the revised regulation on fertilisers: this sets out common rules for converting bio-waste into raw materials, which can then be used to manufacture fertiliser products. This would utilise abundant, nutrient-rich resources (which are commonly treated as waste), thus reducing the need for fertiliser to be produced from imported, mined materials or from energy-intensive chemical processes. While this practice already occurs, the regulation would formalise processes and would provide an opportunity to scale and trade bio-waste fertilisers across the EU. This example shows how a resource that was previously treated as waste can be utilised. But to fully take advantage of the estimated €1trillion of economic benefits that taking a circular economy approach could add to Europe by 2030, we need to be more ambitious and to think about how all of an organisation’s outputs could contribute to circular resource flows, through innovative design and business models.

As with much EU legislation, the circular economy package was not without its critics; however, there is an opportunity here to create lasting prosperity in a sustainable way if, by reshaping the policy framework, the government continues to lend its support for creating circular economic systems by embedding this approach in legislation and by continuing to provide funding for projects.

In order to get the policy instruments needed, the business community should be using its influence to campaign on this issue as well as demonstrating practical action. At Business in the Community, we are beginning a programme of work to improve business awareness of the circular economy and to mobilise action towards this approach.

Regardless of whether or not Brexit was the right choice, it will happen; so let’s try to make it work.