The concept of a circular economy entails a radical shift in perspective, challenging us to break free from conventional linear patterns of production and consumption, rethinking our economic business models driving profit from service in addition to or in favor of product based business models, and looking to understand the value of nature in either how we protect its loss, or quantify the economic as well as environmental and social value it provides to our ecosystem. However, I have often communicated, when unpacking its core principles - are we really pioneering new ideas or simply going around in circles?
As we confront the complex challenges posed by environmental degradation – ranging from global warming, pollution,
waste to resource exhaustion and global inequity, it becomes clearer that our current mode of operation is unsustainable. To build a future where both economic growth and ecological integrity can coexist harmoniously, we must prioritize sustainability at the core of our decision-making processes. The shift begins when we prioritize economic viability hand in hand with ecological sustainability, rather than relegating the latter to a secondary role. There are many ways to deliver this, although too much detail for this article.
In many ways, embracing circularity requires society to rediscover the balanced relationship with nature that our ancestors cultivated for generations. We are being asked to relearn what was second nature to them – to take only what is needed, reuse and repurpose materials, and value natural capital.
While modern tools and technologies can accelerate the transition, reshaping mindsets is key. The circular economy is underpinned by a shift from linear thinking to systems thinking, moving away from siloed roles to collective responsibility. Implementing such solutions demands many skills that reflect the wisdom of the past – creativity, ingenuity, cooperation, and resilience.
Net zero and waste – moving past a narrow focus
For too long, the relationship between net zero and waste has been viewed from a narrow perspective – just reducing emissions from waste activities. Of course, sending less waste to landfills, having cleaner incinerators, capturing methane, and recycling materials like steel, aluminum, glass, textiles or plastic help. But we need to think bigger if we want to reach a true circular economy and deliver on our national and corporate Net Zero pledges.
The role of the waste sector cannot be confined to managing materials after they are discarded. There is too much embodied knowledge across the sector that, ironically, would be wasted unless this sector was front and center of identifying and delivering the solutions. Joint forces with businesses, policy makers etc should be accelerated to reduce consumption from the upstream in the first place or, alternatively, keep the products and materials in use through repair, reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing as long as possible. Recycling should, based on the higher energy use and the destruction of value, always remain the last option. In addition, materials can only remain circulated and not lost as ‘leakage’ if they are put onto the market in a particular way. Making new products requires tons of energy - for mining raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and more. Therefore, less demand means less waste, and ultimately reduced emissions. Equally innovators and investors in waste material derived solutions are reliant upon detailed knowledge of what is in the waste, but more importantly the intended and unintended consequences of any interference to existing flows
Renewable power and decarbonizing energy is clearly important, but reducing the need for energy in the first place should be the priority. You don’t stop a bath overflowing by making the water more
sustainable or technology to capture the water more efficient – you simply turn off the tap! Waste companies already have the global know-how and expertise. They just need to apply it earlier in the value chain. Their knowledge is essential in the design phase to maximize recovery or potential for material valorisation.
Given the transformative nature of the circular economy, it requires a communal design. To effectively address the diverse challenges and complex issues of our time, such as global warming and resource scarcity, collective intelligence and action are essential. This means active engagement and cooperation from all economic players, including suppliers, peers, startups, customers, and governments. It is crucial to mobilize stakeholders across the entire value chain to successfully achieve the goals of a circular economy.
Driving sustainability through regulation and behavioral change
A circular economy requires policymakers to employ a balanced mix of strategies to drive behavioral change across the board. According to any resource management hierarchy, it all starts with avoiding waste (or ‘wastage’ of resource, whether this be materials, energy, water or land). When avoidance is impossible, efficient use of resources and circular systems that minimize environmental impact become necessary.
Enforceable regulations play an instrumental role in demand management by restricting unsustainable linear practices. Bans on wasteful single-use plastics are one example of how mandates can force change away from deeply engrained behaviors. However, such topdown policies must be complemented by effective communication if change is to be lasting.
Communication efforts aimed at voluntary transformation are crucial for raising public awareness and intrinsic motivation to alter entrenched lifestyles. Messaging should aim to help people understand the rationale behind reducing waste, embracing
circularity and adopting new business models to deliver consumer needs. Passionate leaders who inspire through vision and reason can complement rule-based approaches, and in the longer term become even more effective.
This balanced approach can deliver the scale and speed of transformation required for a sustainable, circular economy. With environmental threats mounting, we need both external force and internal willingness to collectively change course.
Technical diversification skills for advancing circular economy
Advancing the circular economy agenda should see waste management professionals equipped with a diverse skillset to meet emerging challenges. Firstly, they must embrace technologies like AI and automation to enhance efficiency across waste operations from collection, sorting and treatment. Smart innovations such as sensor-enabled bins that automatically identify recycling potential can optimize waste tracing and processing, smart MRFs, digital collection routing and the list goes on. Skills need to be developed to embrace this change.
Secondly, diversifying technical capabilities requires adapting existing engineering expertise to sustainable practices. Professionals should learn how to implement and commercialize renewable waste derived energy sources like hydrogen and biofuels and progress further pioneering engineering designs for waste-to-energy facilities. They also need to cultivate collaborative abilities to create symbiotic partnerships across sectors that close resource loops.
Thirdly, data and supply chain skills become critical. Professionals must leverage data analytics to uncover optimization opportunities and inform strategic planning aligned with circular principles. Mastering circular supply chain management will minimize waste generation by streamlining material flows and reverse logistics. Transitioning to circular models also demands advanced traceability systems to monitor products across their lifecycles.
As the industry evolves, technical diversification is key to unlocking the potential of the circular economy through innovation, efficiency, and collaboration.
The power of strategic resilience in systemic transformation
Transitioning to a circular economy demands resilience, ambition tempered with pragmatism, and collective effort across all levels. Technological capabilities, collaborative partnerships, and communication will be vital in driving systemic transformation. However, progress hinges on the mindset shifts underpinning circular thinking – embracing long-term perspectives and collective responsibility. This requires strategic big picture thinkers.
Strategic resilience involves the determination to continuously adapt, take measured risks, and persist despite uncertainty. Realistic target setting is essential to focus efforts and build momentum. Overly idealistic goals risk disillusionment, whereas incremental milestones enable agile progress tracking. Policymakers must use granular data to set ambitious yet achievable objectives
To drive the level of change needed requires leaders across the different sectors that are collaborative, strategists and entrepreneurs by nature and DNA, inspirational leaders and system based thinkers. Without this final piece of the jigsaw, there is a risk out of box solutions desperately required to drive the necessary pace of change will not become mainstream and true circular economy remains ideology. In all business to deliver sustainable outcomes, we need key skills such as inspiring leadership focused on values and not just the bottom line; detailed knowledge of their business operations but how it can interface with others and desire to collaborate delivering collective value; willingness to be brave to challenge existing models and try new ones, (after all failure is how we learn to succeed); and core knowledge of sustainability and what it means – not green washing, but the core principles.
This balanced approach of marrying technical and operations expertise with strategic resilience will unlock the potential of the circular economy. Equipping waste management (and sustainability) professionals with these multifaceted skillsets will empower them to meet pressing sustainability goals.
By leveraging ancient wisdom around conservation alongside cutting-edge solutions, we can transition from the inertia of linearity to the regenerative possibilities of circularity. With pragmatic action rooted in collective values, we can forge an economy where economic prosperity and ecological regeneration coexist harmoniously.
Building strategic resilience: Future skills for the circular economy and waste management
Explore the circular economy, a shift from linear patterns, prioritizing sustainability, and valuing nature. Are we pioneering or going in circles? Discover the balance, modern tools, and mindset reshaping for a harmonious future. Join the shift today.