Blog: How can Wales best measure its circular economy progress?

The recent CIWM Cymru Wales webinar ‘How can Wales best measure its circular economy progress?’ explored many possible methods and metrics that could be used to evaluate the circular economy. Brian Mayne, Chair of CIWM Cymru Wales and webinar chair, looks at the points raised by the panel as well as their answers to a few of the questions raised during the session along with their reactions to the audience polls.

A circular economy keeps resources and materials in use for as long as possible avoiding waste. This means moving away from a ‘linear economy’ which assumes a constant supply of natural resources represented by the take-make-use-dispose culture. Beyond Recycling, the Welsh Government’s circular economy strategy, states that ‘Moving to a circular economy is key to the delivery of key environmental outcomes – because it can significantly reduce our carbon emissions and our over-exploitation of natural resources, and help to reverse the decline in biodiversity’. Also, they recognise that transitioning to a circular economy is key to the delivery of key economic and social outcomes. To assist this process a suite of indicators has been developed, to demonstrate the connection between policy and outcome within the strategy.

The webinar was designed to look at the various tools different organisations have developed to measure the delivery of circular outcomes as well as the challenges organisations face when putting them into practice.

Dr. Anne Scheinberg, a Global Recycling Specialist, who has a lifelong professional commitment to circularity and recycling, and was one of the North American recycling pioneers in municipal recycling started the discussion by delivering a presentation on her work on the Circular and Low Carbon (CALC) project. The project a joint initiative of various ISWA Working Groups has been designed to support both the resource and energy transitions from high-intensity resource use to resource efficiency and circularity, with a focus on cities in high-income countries. Its emphasis is on processes, not products, for example measuring the impact that can be achieved through city processes such as repair, second-hand trade, prevention, refurbishing or reuse. At present it is investigating three metrics;

  • Availability of circular processes in cities by developing an inventory of circular activities (Repair, remanufacture, reuse)
  • Intensity of use of those circular processes. How much material is being processed through them?
  • Impact of those activities on climate, eco systems and sustainability.

Anne was joined by panellists Trevor Gibson the Smart City Leadership and Development Manager with Opportunity Peterborough, the city’s economic development body, Katie Thomas the Senior Strategy Manager for Low Carbon and Environment at the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Ellen Petts founder and managing director of a unique not-for-profit flooring company Greenstream Flooring CIC.

It was highlighted that the Welsh Government have set several indicators to demonstrate the connection between policy and outcome within the circular economy strategy such as;

  • Household waste per capita
  • Food waste reduction
  • % of primary and secondary schools signed up to Eco schools
  • % of public spend in Wales through public sector procurement
  • Number of businesses adopting sustainable practices.

The panel provided information on the metrics they had developed. Trevor highlighted that Peterborough has a set of eight Circular Economy Indicators, which report on the environmental (waste and energy), social and economic aspects of the circular economy. One key issue he was keen to raise was the need to be aware that developing too many metrics can have a number of negative outcomes and this is something that anyone developing indicators should be wary of. Katie explained that they have produced a Circular Yorkshire Strategy & Action plan to track their progress towards creating a competitive circular economy in York and North Yorkshire by 2030, they measure progress and performance implementing their Action Plan (outputs); and progress achieving their strategic goals – impacts (outcomes). She went on to outline that as their learning matures, KPIs and other measures will be reviewed and adjusted, explaining that as they move through the phases of the Action Plan, the focus will shift from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes. Ellen highlighted the recently published Social Impact Report on her company where they set out several metrics used to explain the impact of the business such as material diverted, material donated, number of employees and carbon savings. She also highlighted the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circulytics free tool for businesses to use to measure their circular economy performance.

One thing that struck me from the comments of all the speakers was that too many metrics may be worse than no metrics. They can require large amounts of resources to track and produce huge amounts of information that call for a considerable time and effort to analyse, and that all members of the panel had spent considerable time and effort in ensuring that the metrics they were using could help them to monitor their progress towards circularity.

Following the initial discussion around what metrics the organisations used the audience was asked what they thought were the main challenges. The majority thought that accurately measuring and reporting indicators may be difficult or impossible if the internal reporting system or external reporting requirements to support them isn’t in place or the indicators too complex. A theme previously highlighted by the speakers. This was closely followed by a lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a circular economy and therefore what needs to be measured. Katie explained that they had difficulty obtaining data in some areas making it difficult to measure outcomes. Anne widened the debate and was keen to raise the need for reporting requirements to be introduced so that organisations who could collect the data should have a duty to do so. This led seamlessly to the next poll which considered the subject of reporting requirements set by the Welsh Government on the public sector. The question posed to the audience was whether new data requirements were an unnecessary additional burden as they are already under numerous pressures as a result of budgetary and staffing constraints.

The audience overwhelmingly voted that they should provide the data and that it would provide useful information for them to deliver services more efficiently.

Katie agreed with the audience and believed there was an opportunity not just at a national level but was interested to see them applied at a town and community level to ascertain if the circular economy was making a difference locally. The panellists then widened the debate to include a range of subject areas from public procurement requirements to carbon reporting.

The next poll looked at whether the Welsh Government should introduce CE metrics for businesses/organisations they fund. It should be noted that they have provided a variety of different funds to all sectors of the community to help the country transform a ‘Circular Economy’.

Overwhelmingly, 93% of the audience agreed that if an organisation was receiving funding from Welsh Government they should provide data to be measured against and that any metric should be aligned with government ambitions.

Ellen agreed that it was mutually beneficial to have indicators for organisations as well as government. Anne raised the issue that it was worthwhile when looking at metrics in this situation to consider what data is already being collected and that any metric should collect facts/ evidence based outcomes rather than intentions or interpretation.

The final poll looked at what impact will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the achievement of CE goals and targets across Wales, with 44% of those attending believing it would delay the achievement of Welsh Government goals and targets, closely followed by 39% disagreeing by thinking it would be the opposite and actually accelerate the success of goals and targets. In response to this poll, Trevor took the opportunity to remind the audience that a circular economy is a resilient economy that can make a city/nation stronger and better prepared for the next disruption in order to improve the quality of life of the people who live there.

An article by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation entitled ‘The Covid-19 recovery requires a resilient circular economy[1]’ expands this point and identifies that the current crisis makes the circular economy more relevant than ever, as it holds a significant number of economically attractive answers. It goes on to state that ‘As governments step up to address the most pressing issues, setting a clear direction and enabling private sector circular innovation to reach scale will allow us to combine economic regeneration, better societal outcomes and climate ambitions’.

In conclusion, as momentum behind the circular economy continues to grow in Wales the number of indicators and methodologies for assessing progress is likely to follow suit. What we need to ensure is that whatever indicators are used by the Welsh Government that they should be easily processed and understood and capable of tracking the journey towards zero waste, net zero carbon, one planet living and the move towards a more circular economy. This will ensure that we can demonstrate a genuine connection between policies, indicators and outcomes that will show our progress towards a circular economy.



[1]  Jocelyn Blériot, Executive Lead, International Institutions & Governments, Ellen MacArthur Foundation accessed 210421

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