The circular economy in 2020 – thoughts, hopes and how we’ll get involved

The circular economy in 2020 – thoughts, hopes and how we’ll get involved

For almost ten years now, senior members of the UNTHA UK team have been asked to periodically pen their thoughts on the progress of the circular economy in this country.

The very first feature we wrote on the topic looked back decades to the 1970s, when the work of Stahel was underway. He was a pioneer of closed loop thinking and delved with interest into the creation of circular models that create jobs, boost economic competitiveness, save resources and prevent waste.

Sadly, fast forward to 2020 and we know that a somewhat throwaway society conversely characterises the world we live in today, which makes it difficult for some people to validate the long-term effectiveness and application of Stahel’s work. In fact, the sustainability struggles that the planet is now experiencing on a global level, go some way to explaining why the circular economy has only really become a hot topic again in recent years – certainly for the masses.

But there are a few important points to note here.

    • Closed loop thinking isn’t new. So, while we should absolutely be excited about it, it shouldn’t be feared. It needs to be applied in new ways of course, which explains some of the rallying cries to players throughout the design and supply chain to help push on with continued change. But we need to focus more on understanding it, instead of perceiving it only as a distant vision.
    • The true definition of a closed loop may still feel little more than a pipedream to some – a mammoth and almost unachievable mountain to climb. So why is there so much focus on what is almost a holy grail of where we need – or ought – to be? Absolutely, the industry, government and general public need something to aim towards – a bold ambition, a sense of purpose, a direction of travel. But if we remain too fixated only on wholly circular models that may take years – if not decades – to achieve, will more people become disheartened? Will the circular economy be dismissed as little more than a buzz-phrase?
    • Finally, while some people – and businesses – have become dismissive of the need to each do our bit to protect the environment, others are more headstrong than ever. From Greta Thunberg to David Attenborough, and Extinction Rebellion to Wrap, people are arguably talking about ‘being green’ on an unprecedented scale. This is encouraging.

So, where are we now versus where we wanted to be?

If we reflect on a selection of articles published on the circular economy around a decade ago, many – at the time – looked forward to the potential that we could have realised, as a country, by 2020. Has the UK got there? No, of course not. There is a vast amount of work to be done. But there are some examples of both minor murmurs and significant step-changes throughout industry, which give us reason to be excited.

A couple of years ago, a start-up business came to us, for example, for help designing an electrical plug recycling system. They identified the vast potential to better process ‘redundant’ plugs, if only the innovation existed to support the materials handling and liberation process.

And on a much wider scale, we read an interesting article late last year which talked about the EU’s Plastics Circularity Multiplier and their combined efforts to boost circular progress for that material stream. Things are happening. Perhaps not on the scale we’d all like, but let’s celebrate some successes where praise is deserved.

Wrap has long been particularly vocal about the economic and environmental benefits of closed loop models too, and some of their explanatory articles – surrounding lean production, waste reduction, the salvaging of products that are still in working order, and the ‘goods to services’ transition which sees more products being leased – still provide fantastic food for thought ten years after they were first published.

What has UNTHA been doing to support a circular economy?

Hopefully some readers of this blog will think, I have made efforts in some (if not all) of these four areas over the last three, five or ten years. UNTHA UK certainly has. Admittedly we still have work to do too, but going back to an earlier point – incremental progress should be celebrated. We’re not perfect but we do believe we have a strong sustainability agenda running through the heart of our company, so we’re thinking hard about the changes we can continue to make.

Only last year, for instance, we launched our shredder rebuild division – an engineering service which sees our team take back used or unwanted equipment so that it can be restored for ongoing use. This has the benefit of extending the operational life of a shredder by up to 80-100% – and for 60% of the cost of new – thus avoiding waste and the unnecessary manufacturing and purchase of a new machine. If the existing asset owner has evolved and requires a different shredder to satisfy their latest/next step requirements, the refurbished shredder can go on to have a long and useful life with another business.

We’ve another service to push this year too – UNTHA’s cutter rebuild service. While our RS four shaft cutters, for example, are designed for a long service life – even when shredding a range of tough materials – they do naturally wear with prolonged use.

But, knowing that cutter robustness and efficiency is crucial to a shredder’s productivity, uptime and ROI, we’ve devised a refurbishment service that will overhaul the condition of these crucial parts, and reduce a customer’s wear part costs by up to 40%. We’ve produced a cutter refurbishment guide that walks you through the process if you want to learn more.

What’s next?

It would be great to have a crystal ball and predict the state of the circular economy when this year draws to a close, but of course nobody can say exactly what progress will have been made by that time.

I’m sure we’d all love a bit more of a helping hand from the Government. And it would be great if funding was available to support us in our plight. But there are ideas we can explore ourselves, knowledge we can choose to share with others in industry, and small steps we can each make to keep progress going in the right direction. Simply saying that a circular economy is impossible, or someone else’s problem, is not good enough. 

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