The circular economy action plan: ReLondon’s Wayne Hubbard


Circular economy

Circular Online speaks to ReLondon’s CEO Wayne Hubbard about his recent trip to the World Circular Economy Forum and a possible UK circular economy action plan.

Hubbard described the World Circular Economic Forum as “probably the world’s biggest single conference on the topic of the circular economy”. The event is attended by some of the top actors in the circular economy space globally.

The Forum is organised by the Finnish Innovation Fund and has been held since 2017. After delays and postponements due to the pandemic, Hubbard says this is the first time he’s been to the invite-only event since 2019 and it’s grown in its time away.

Most of the people you mention the circular economy to glaze over and they’re not quite sure what it means.

“It’s very rare in this space that you’re in a place where there’s 3000 people who are just as expert on the circular economy as you are,” Hubbard said. “Most of the people you mention the circular economy to glaze over and they’re not quite sure what it means, but the attendees were all absolute experts. So you have these really interesting conversations that you don’t often get in other arenas.”

Hubbard also noted the work to diversify attendees to attract more people from the Global South. However, he said the majority of delegates were EU stakeholders who had a focus on Scandinavia and didn’t feel there was a big attendance by UK and American stakeholders, so a lot of discussions reflected the European perspective.

The need to accelerate the circular economy

Circular economy action plan

Three things from the Forum stood out to Hubbard. The first was a general feeling among delegates that more needs to be done to develop and accelerate the circular economy in Europe and globally.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly in the EU, about circular economy policy but it isn’t cutting in at the government level,” Hubbard says.

The general feeling Hubbard picked up at the conference was that governments are distracted and slow to act, and while there are a lot of circular economy pilots, there are fewer scale-up models.

“It felt like – for me at least – we need to redouble our efforts wherever we sit in the space to promote and accelerate the development of the circular economy as much as we possibly can.

“That was a big message I came away thinking: How can I do that in my role?”

The four dimensions governments must target

Houses of Parliament

The second thing that stood out to Hubbard was a presentation by Andrea Liverani, a lead specialist on sustainable development with the World Bank and author of Squaring the Circle: Policies from Europe’s Circular Economy Transition.

“Liverani set out within the report four dimensions that governments need to target to transition to a circular economy,” Hubbard explains. The four dimensions that Liverani talked about were institutions, information, incentives and financing. 

“If you read the report, you’ll realise just how far away we are from having real materials focus within our economic policy, so even our net zero policies are very much energy and emissions focused. There’s almost no integration at government level – and this is consistent across many national governments.”

The Gambia
Wayne Hubbard in The Gambia during a recent visit with CIWM.

Hubbard also told Circular Online how Liverani discussed the need for coordination across government, especially with finance departments, so there is a coherent policy approach. 

“How massive would it be to coordinate materials-focused policies across government?” Hubbard asks. “Especially, a government that is so distracted and you can start to think about how far away we are from that.”

Hubbard highlights the need for tailored business support programmes and integrating the circular economy into education. “They’re starting to appear,” he says. “But why is this not central to the government? 

“This was one of the points in the report, that we need a fiscal reform package so that circular economy companies are not disincentivised, which is incredibly difficult.

Liverani also points out the importance of cities as the engines of the circular economy.

“Liverani also points out the importance of cities as the engines of the circular economy. We should empower cities to do some of this on behalf of the government and citizens, especially in the waste and recycling space, the material space and the planning space.

“That was something that impressed me: the need for us all to start to think about how we can talk to the government coherently and consistently about the need for change and how our sector should be leading that discussion.”

Textiles in the Global South


“Finally, there were really interesting sessions outside the main programme. One on food was particularly interesting, which was delivered by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and talked about how dangerous mono agriculture is and how we need to diversify our agricultural practices.”

“Another that impressed me, was a panel on fashion that treated delegates to a video interview with the CEO of a South African company called Rewoven Esethu Cenga,” Hubbard told Circular Online.

Rewoven is a textile recycling start-up based in Cape Town, South Africa. Cenga spoke about the Kantamanto Market in Ghana, the largest second-hand market in the world.

According to a position paper from The OR Foundation, 15 million garments travel through Kantamanto every week and 40% of the average bale leaves the market as waste.

At least around two-thirds of the clothing collected for reuse ends up being exported to overseas markets.

“40% of the textiles we send to the African continent is immediately wasted and Rewoven is trying to make something of these textiles and the materials that come from their own communities,” Hubbard said.

“Cengu explained that they lack the skills and finance to do this effectively because the indigenous fashion and textile manufacturing communities have been severely depleted as Africa relies on importing second-hand clothing.

“There’s this difficult problem where you have on the face of it, potentially a successful collection of materials of clothing – ReLondon has just released a report that demonstrates 60% of clothing after its first life is collected, while 40% goes to landfill or incineration – but at least around two-thirds of the clothing collected for reuse ends up being exported to overseas markets.

“So it’s not such a great story after all and that was a real eye-opening moment for me, understanding the global flows of material and the problems that can be caused by apparent successes collecting waste.”

When clothing is collected for recycling by Rewoven it is mostly downcycled into various products and what they want to do is upcycle that clothing.

Hubbard said that the lesson he took away from the presentation is that we need to change our behaviour; value clothes more and buy less clothing. “We also need to figure out a way to recycle our clothing back into clothing,” Hubbard said.

Secondly, Hubbard said the UK needs to think about how we can help the people who are working in the African continent to take clothing and turn it into something useful.

“At the moment, when clothing is collected for recycling by Rewoven it is mostly downcycled into various products and what they want to do is upcycle that clothing. What Rewoven needs is someone who’s able to provide finance.”

Lessons for the UK: a circular economy action plan

Circular economy

Hubbard told Circular Online there are massive opportunities for UK business, both at the small and medium size and also at the corporate level, and he thinks they know they have to change.

“They’ve got to move away from their dependence on the linear model and discover and develop more future-proof circular economy business models. But it’s difficult to wean corporations off their addiction to their extractive ways because they know that making that transition is tricky.”

Hubbard discussed earlier how the fiscal and institutional frameworks don’t align. However, he feels that lots of corporations would be supportive of a circular economy if they were operating on a level playing field with the linear model. But he gets the impression that without this framework it’s difficult to encourage the transition.

The circular economy needs to sit across government.

“I would have loved to have seen many more corporations and SMEs from the UK there so they understand the scale of the challenge and the way they can talk to government and help them understand what needs to be done across departments.

“The circular economy needs to sit across government. It cannot sit in a department. It cannot sit in a chapter in a document. It needs to be foundational and it isn’t right now.

“But it’s not just the UK, it’s the EU too. There are very few good examples of this at government level. One thing that could change that, for example, would be a road map towards a circular economy.”

The UK government has a net zero document, Hubbard argues a circular economy document is urgently needed.

ReLondon’s Circular Economy Week

Bike maintenance

ReLondon’s Circular Economy Week returns for its sixth annual event on Monday 16 October 2023

Hubbard told Circular Online the event is going to feature speakers not only in the environment space but people with economic and business expertise. “The circular economy needs to cut across a range of topics.

“It’s about skills, global supply chains and the cost of living. We want to bring that into focus but it’s also an open-source event, so people can curate their own events during that week and can also be included on our list of events.”

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