The "circular economy" will gather pace in 2018 - and China could be its accelerator

A green power station in Chongqing uses waste to produce electricity. Photo: Getty Images.

A green power station in Chongqing uses waste to produce electricity. Photo: Getty Images.

The diplomatic think-tank Chatham House has just released a report on how the "circular economy" (CE) - defined as one "where products are recycled, repaired or reused rather than thrown away, and in which waste from one process becomes an input into other processes" - is a real opportunity for developing countries. These include:-

  • Helping lower-income countries ‘leapfrog’ to a more sustainable development pathway that avoids locking in resource-intensive practices and infrastructure...
  • Lower-income countries are in many ways more ‘circular’ than their developed-economy counterparts – the question is how to turn this into a development opportunity. Much economic activity in lower-income countries revolves around sorting and reusing waste...
  • The existence of circular activities in developing countries provides excellent political ‘entry points’, which could enable governments, the private sector, civil society and other actors to promote innovative economic models. The CE could provide a powerful narrative, helping to build momentum around a set of ideas that can be applied in and tailored to multiple sectors or cities.

Interestingly, in an additional blog, Chatham House identifies China as the main superpower who could help trigger circular economics throughout the world. China is one of the few countries with a "strategy and law" for CE (compare the Scottish Government's), and the blog explores how China's various agreements with surrounding countries and regions could promote the model. 

From the blog: 

As a major manufacturer and processor of natural resources, China sees some of the worst effects of unchecked resource extraction and waste production. In 2014, China generated 3.2 billion tonnes of industrial solid waste, only two billion tonnes of which were recovered for recycling, incineration and reuse.

The growing waste crisis has had lethal consequences; 73 people were killed in a landslide at a waste dump in Shenzhen in 2015. Even when waste is managed, reliance on poor-quality processes can make matters worse. China has seen dozens of protests by local residents over waste-incineration projects.

However, the government has been taking action. It has set targets, introduced financial measures and passed laws to promote a circular economy. It is one of the few governments to have a circular economy strategy and law, and the concept has featured prominently in both the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans.

As a result, there is a lot that developing countries can learn from China. One area is eco-industrial parks. China is a global leader on industrial symbiosis, the practice of ensuring that waste from one industrial process becomes a valuable input into others. Industrial parks across the country have been transformed to take advantage of such practices.

In Suzhou New District, for example, firms print circuit boards using copper recovered from elsewhere in the park rather than shipping in virgin copper. Local governments have a wealth of experience in running pilot projects and incentive-setting for firms. This could be shared with developing countries eager to establish their own circular economy industrial parks.

More here.