An opportunity not to be wasted?

Marcus Gover
Last weekend, promoting what promises to be another seminal piece of work coming out later this year, Sir David Attenborough, when asked by Andrew Marr on the one thing we could all do to help protect our planet, replied: “Stop waste stop waste of any kind; stop wasting power, stop wasting food, stop wasting plastic. Don’t waste. This is a precious world, to celebrate and cherish.”
 
Waste – what Rob Kunzig in his fantastic piece on the circular economy in the National Geographic described as “the mother of all environmental problems”. It’s what we spit out after plundering the planet of billions of tonnes of raw materials. To build skyscrapers in gleaming cities, to build and power transportation, to feed and clothe us, build technology, and drive our consumption culture.
 
We only capture around 9% of what we extract. The rest is waste which we allow to leach back into our environment. Not in the way the natural world replenishes and regenerates itself, but to poison it – as plastic pollution, and as dangerous greenhouse gases which are driving climate change. 
 
Take food. We waste around a third of what is produced. When it goes to landfill it creates dangerous greenhouse gases. This is on top of the wasted energy, fertiliser, and transport to produce and move it around the world. In fact, if it was a country, food waste would be the third biggest emitter in the world. 
 
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of this linear take-make-dispose economic model, with its over-reliance on the extraction and export of natural resources. Factories for manufactured goods like clothing and electronics are idle and supply chains are disrupted. The widely predicted economic slump after a long period of paralysis may trigger less disposable income for struggling consumers.
 
I observed this supply chain disruption already myself. Forced to work from home, I discovered I needed a Wi-Fi booster. It’s probably something lots of others are doing to adapt to lockdown working. They all seemed to be out of stock. But a remanufactured one wasn’t. It came within days, cost less than new, and does the job perfectly.
 
Refurbished and remanufactured goods are great. My smartphone is a slightly less new, refurbished model. It arrived in a Jiffy bag, so I was deprived of the beautiful packaging and yet another headphone set. But it performs in the way I want and when I no longer need it, I will ensure it goes back into the system so the precious materials can be extracted.
 
In these small vignettes lie enormous opportunities for how we can emerge from this crisis to reshape our economy into one which mirrors the blueprint of regeneration we see all around us in the eco-system.
 
We need a circular one where we keep resources in productive use as many times as human ingenuity can conceive. 
We need an economy that minimises the amount of waste; that has supply chain resilience and shared value hard-wired in. It will help to tackle both the causes and effects of climate change and cushion against future shocks to the economy.
 
This has enormous environmental benefits, but also makes economic sense. In a ground-breaking WRAP report produced in 2015, we estimated that the expansion of the circular economy could not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also drive the economy. We estimated that there was the potential to create 3 million extra jobs and reduce unemployment by over half a million across EU member states.
 
And it could be a way of providing a lifeline for local businesses in our own communities. We didn’t have to look far from home to find suppliers of our fantastic remanufactured office furniture at WRAP. There are other excellent organisations on our doorsteps doing things like repairing discarded domestic appliances for people in need or turning surplus bread into beer!
 
Our economies have hit pause and will need to be rebuilt. We can recalibrate them in a way which designs out the profligacy which has made us so reckless with the environment and which is now exposed as inherently unstable. We need to cherish and celebrate resilience, durability, repairability over shiny and disposable. We might not get the same thrill out of ‘stuff’ anymore. But that suddenly feels so ‘yesterday’.