From Rented Jeans to Reused Cooking Oil, Businesses are Going ‘Circular’

From recycled paint to rented jeans, businesses large and small are looking at ways to cut waste, use fewer resources and help create what has been coined a “circular economy” in which raw materials and products are repeatedly reused.

Unilever, Renault, Google and Nike are some of the companies starting to move towards a circular business model, experts say.

Cities too – including London, Amsterdam and Paris – are looking at how they can shift to a circular economy, which means reusing products, parts and materials, producing no waste and pollution, and using fewer new resources and energy.

London’s Waste and Recycling Board last month published a road map for how the city as a whole could make the shift, thereby cutting emissions and creating jobs.

“As London grows it faces unprecedented pressure on its land and its resources. If we are to meet these challenges, moving London to a circular economy will be vital,” Shirley Rodrigues, London’s deputy mayor for environment and energy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The city would likely need less land and infrastructure to manage waste, freeing up space for housing and saving up to 5 billion pounds ($6.5 billion) in infrastructure costs. The shift could generate 40,000 jobs, including 12,500 new jobs across London, she said.

It would also cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is widely accepted that the circular economy has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … through using less resources to make products in the first place and releasing less gases from energy generation, for example,” Rodrigues said.

“This can also be achieved through using resources more efficiently by extending the life of products and through the sharing of goods,” she added.

PwC, which offers audit, tax and consulting services, is going circular, and offering advice about this to its clients, who number 26,000 in Britain with more overseas.

The company uses cooking fat from its canteens and other kitchens to fuel its offices, it re-uses and remanufactures office furniture where possible and donates the rest to charity, and when its computers and phones need upgrading – a frequent occurrence – they send them to another company which resells them.

‘Walk the talk’

Bridget Jackson, PwC’s head of corporate sustainability, is looking at everything from office carpets to recycled wall paint to see how to cut the company’s waste and use of resources. Even worn out company uniforms are taken apart and reused.

“There are big cost savings, there’s reputational benefits from being responsible, and it is a topic which is of a lot of interest to our employees,” Jackson said.

“We are often giving advice to clients about how they can make their operations more efficient and be more sustainable, and we try to walk the talk,” she said.

Some companies are looking for ways to become less reliant on raw materials because they fluctuate in price and become harder to source.

That can mean recycling aluminum for cars, old trainers for sportswear, and others are looking at reusing parts.

Many have developed ways to lease products – including jeans, lighting and photocopiers – to customers who return them when they want to upgrade.

London authorities are hoping that architects will increasingly design buildings which can be taken apart at the end of their lives and the materials and components used again.

“I think increasingly, everything that we do will be seen through the lens of a circular economy,” said Wayne Hubbard, chief operating officer of the London Waste and Recycling Board.

Experts say change is happening in pockets.

“We’re still in the early stages where you see some businesses, some cities, national governments playing around with these ideas and … starting to make moves towards a circular economy,” said Ashima Sukhdev, head of governments and cities at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “I’m very hopeful that London will become a circular economy.”

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