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The concept of the circular economy as a system that retains value by deploying regenerative processes such as reuse, recycling, recovery and remanufacturing is now well entrenched in both policy and practical terms. Its initial focus on mimicking nature’s biological cycle by closing the waste loop has broadened, incorporating other resource efficiency measures within the paradigm such as minimising the use of primary raw materials, designing products that are more readily reused, recycled or remanufactured, and moving from the outright ownership of products to acquiring its functionality as a service – from car rentals to the management of office space. Circular economy principles, or more generally the concept of “circularity”, has now been applied to a wide range of activities and sectors: cities and the built environment, manufacturing processes and the agricultural sector being some examples.

In practical terms implementation of circular economy precepts has been patchy. The linear take–make–dispose model of production and consumption still dominates the global economy, despite many examples of good practice: the high rate of reuse and recycling of consumer products in Low- and Middle-income Countries (LMICs) and the adoption of new business models by the corporate sector being but two. Nevertheless, as a general rule, increasing global wealth has gone hand in hand with increasing consumption, profligacy and wastefulness, putting greater pressure on natural resources and despoiling the environment. The challenge is to reverse this trend by decoupling economic growth from its downsides – in essence, to achieve sustainable growth, wealth creation and improvements in the lives and livelihoods of citizens by (among other measures) transitioning to a circular economy.

This leads to the related theme of sustainable development. Although not originally conceived as formally connected as a theoretical construct, the two concepts overlap in respect of their overall aspirations and goals. The circular economy most obviously engages directly with the economic pillar of sustainable development, and although it seemingly engages only indirectly with the latter’s social and environmental pillars, it is now the dominant view of policymakers and of practitioners that the economy, and implementing circular economy-informed projects in particular, can be legitimised only if all three pillars of sustainable development are respected. In other words, transitioning to a circular economy is expected to, and should be designed to, deliver economic as well as environmental and social benefits – examples being tackling marine pollution and creating jobs. Under this interpretation the circular economy contributes to several of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and their related targets, Goal 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and Goal 12 (Responsible production and consumption) being direct touchpoints, with the social and environmental aspects of others such as Goals 2 (Zero hunger), 3 (Good health and wellbeing), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender equality), 6 (Clean water and sanitation), 7 (Affordable and clean energy), 8 (Decent work and economic growth), 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), 13 (Climate action), 14 (Life below water) and 15 (Life on land) being indirect examples.

The purpose of this book is to explore in eleven chapters how circular economy principles and their applications relate to the sustainable development goals under scenarios covering a range of activities and sectors, and the extent to which the circular economy can contribute towards achieving these goals. Chapters 1 and 2 (by Sadhan Kumar Ghosh of the Sustainable Development & Circular Economy Research Centre and Gev Eduljee of Resource Futures, respectively) present an overview of the concepts, their adoption in policy, legislation and international standards, and the current state of play with respect to their implementation. In Chapter 3 Mike Webster of Systemiq examines the efficacy of the circular economy in LMICs, emphasising the need for a pragmatic approach that recognises the particularities of their developmental needs.

Chapter 4, by Ann Stevenson of Resource Futures, discusses the challenges faced by Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) in manufacturing. Social, cultural and political dynamics define how they perceive risks in engaging or not in actions to transition to a circular economy. In Chapter 5 Deborah Andrews of London South Bank University and Beth Whitehead of Operational Intelligence explore the role of design in the value chain focusing on the electronics, textiles, furniture and construction sectors to identify the potential for circularity and the extent to which design can influence and contribute to circular practice and sustainable development goals. In Chapter 6 Hyeong-Jin Choi and Seung-Whee Rhee of Kyonggi University study the role and responsibility of consumers in a circular economy society in conserving resources and consuming environmentally friendly products, identifying six success factors: clear policy targets, allocation of responsibilities by stakeholders, awareness, transparency of information, communication and building infrastructure. Chapter 7 by Fabiula D. B. de Sousa of Universidade Federal de Pelotas examines the literature on the role of plastics in achieving the UN sustainable development goals. Although contributing to the achievement of the majority of the goals, marine pollution caused by plastics outweighs the totality of their positive contribution. Applying circular economy strategies such as reduction, recycling and service life extension was fundamental to helping solve the socio-environmental problems that plastics may cause.

Chapters 8 (Peter Vangsbo of Arup Denmark) and 9 (Purva Mhatre-Shah and Amos Ncube of EarthShift Global) are complementary. Chapter 8 on circularity and sustainable cities emphasises the need for the entirety of the city-wide supply chain to work together to implement circular economy actions, highlighting trends that should be embedded in future city planning. Chapter 9 on construction and the built environment identifies the circular economy as having a direct positive impact on ten of the seventeen sustainable development goals. Supporting initiatives include stakeholder coordination, capacity building and knowledge sharing, using tools such as material flow analysis or material stock assessment for traceability information on resources and deploying AI or blockchain technology for resource modelling.

Chapter 10 by Zoë Lenkiewicz of The Global Waste Lab Circular focuses on the management of biowaste and its contribution to the UN sustainable development goals. Following circular economy priorities, the chapter discusses the reduction of food waste, recovery processes to produce beneficial materials such as compost, biochar and biogas, and problems such as groundwater pollution and disease vectors associated with the mismanagement of biowaste. Finally, Chapter 11 by Dominika Ptach, Deborah Andrews and Simon P. Philbin of London South Bank University explore sustainability and circularity in the data centre industry, a sector that has seen recent rapid growth. The authors identify impacts that include high energy use with concomitant emissions, resource depletion, critical raw materials extraction and unethical labour practices, and review opportunities for the sector to contribute to the sustainable development goals.

The chapter contributors are drawn from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, reflecting the broad sectoral and international applicability of the circular economy and of sustainable development, and the challenges and opportunities for their enhancement. Our intention is for the book to provide a source of information for the benefit of researchers, managers in the corporate and public sectors, policymakers, aid agencies and practitioners implementing strategies and projects on the ground, as well as contributing to study material and supplementary reading for environmental science, sustainable development, waste management and circular economy courses.

Sadhan Kumar Ghosh and Gev Eduljee

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