Is London Doing Enough to Support the Circular Economy?

I was at a conference in London recently when another event attendee turned to me and asked, ‘Do you think London is doing enough to support the circular economy?’. It was such a loaded question, with so many variables, and it felt unfair to say either yes, or no, without really sitting down and doing my research. I responded ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that one’, and so I set about writing this piece.

Firstly, I wanted to look objectively at what the main problems are that the circular economy could help tackle, or solve in London, and that seemed to me to be wastefulness, air pollution, and landfill space. How could I know if London was doing ‘enough’, without seeing what the end goal looks like.

What is London actually doing to support the circular economy?

The circular economy is all about keeping materials and resources in use for longer, by reusing and remanufacturing them. It’s not idealistic either, it’s just a case of looking at what we have, the processes we are doing, and altering them to favour resourcefulness. 

London actually has a dedicated board that is focusing on the circular economy as part of a 3-pronged attack on poor waste management practice. The London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) have been in effect since 2007 and are providing a clear and strategic plan for the betterment of London’s waste. The LAWRB business plan 2017-2020 has these three prongs mentioned before:

  1. Resource London - Which provide support and education in and around London’s waste.
  2. Advance London - The encompassing of all of LWARB’s investment and support expertise to push London forward.
  3. Circular London - The implementation of a programme that can kickstart London’s circular economy movement.

Circular London, it appears, will be delivered through a roadmap (see here) that looks to create the right conditions for a circular economy, and address the built environment, textiles, food, electricals and plastics. Having read the document, I see the most interesting part of what London can do for the circular economy coming in the section regarding creating great conditions for a circular economy. If they can nail down all of the following bullet points, I see no reason why we can’t embed a circular economy.

Creating the right conditions

  • Clear and consistent communications and case studies
  • Circular Economy Ambassadors who collate information and successes
  • Encourage debate and create awareness
  • Collaboration throughout the supply chain
  • A London circular economy hub
  • Commitment of the Mayor of London in supporting circular economy policies
  • Accept that circular economy can be the driver for many environmental targets (recycling, job creation, reuse)
  • Use local authority power to influence circular economy behaviour (housing, planning, development etc)
  • Procurement professionals and public sector organisations should challenge markets to be more innovative and sustainable
  • Leverage the buying power of the private sector for the greater good
  • Make finance more readily available to circular projects and businesses applying the models
  • Better funding and investment strategies for circular SMEs
  • A greater network and advisory support service for businesses
  • Demonstration projects and flagships to show the ideas in action
  • A willingness to innovate, experiment, and leverage new technologies
  • Embrace the Internet of Things
  • Collaborate with researchers from top universities

That’s all the theory, what about action?

One event that has already been and gone was Circular Economy week which fell in the middle of June, which showcased ideas and approaches for a successful circular economy. The week also featured panels on sustainable living, deep innovation, and a range of collaborative workshops.

In recent months, I saw that a large group of UK retailers had teamed up to phase out plastic as a collaborative effort, which is great news. Let’s hope this kind of momentum carries into other industries and becomes ‘trendy’. 

Another great circular economy project I’m a big fan of is OLIO, an app with around 0.25 million users in the UK, mostly around London. The app allows businesses with surplus food to find a new home for that food, with the potential for financial donations to be made through the app too. Food waste is something so preventable, and so pivotal to a circular economy, so I’m glad to see this making massive strides.

Is London doing enough compared to others

I guess, without a concept of how well other countries, capitals and cities are doing, it’s hard to say whether London is doing enough or not. It looks to me like it’s still early days, and there’s more talk than action, a little bit too much hot air for my liking, but I’d prefer to see solid ideas emerge, than half-baked ideas fall at the first hurdle. researched 7 key metrics from around the EU, which are:

  1. How much municipal waste is being produced
  2. How much food waste is being produced
  3. How much of that waste is recycled
  4. What is the volume of recyclable raw materials traded
  5. What is the material reuse rate
  6. How many circular economy patents are filed
  7. How much private investment and job creation is being made

Remarkably, the UK came out 2nd, beaten only by Germany, while France came 3rd, the Czech Republic 4th, and Italy 5th. When it came to raw material trade, patents and reuse, the UK finished in the top 5. Our municipal waste and food waste figures make us guilty parties, but there’s one figure that stands out. Of all of the nations in this report, nobody is investing as much as the UK into the circular economy in a financial sense, and aside from Germany, nobody else is remotely close.

Knowing what I know now…

I’d turn to the fellow attendee at the conference, armed with my facts and figures, and I’d share the sentiment that London is doing enough for the circular economy. We are right at the start, but we are investing, collaborating, and pushing for change, and that makes me proud to be a Londoner, and proud of what we are doing.