II Case Studies and Examples of the Application of Industrial Ecology Approaches

Circular Economy and the Policy Landscape in the UK

Julie Hill

Abstract This chapter sets out the European policy origins of 'circular economy' thinking in the UK and discusses the extent to which the waste prevention plans written by the four countries of the UK (to fulfill the EU requirement) start to move the UK in the direction of more circular approaches. This is important for an understanding of what has driven UK action on this agenda. I argue that the 'circular economy' has become an increasingly vigorous topic of debate in the UK. This has been manifested mainly through interest and use of the language by leading companies, but more recently also through political interest in Scotland and Wales, resulting in diverging policies in the countries of the UK. Heightened political interest in some parts of the UK has coincided with uncertainty about activity in the European Commission. The chapter discusses some of the difficulties in turning the concept into policy prescriptions.

Keywords Circular economy • Waste prevention • Resource efficiency • Resource security • Resilience


The circular economy debate in the UK has evolved over the last 3–4 decades from a number of converging strands of thinking and activity, with their origins chiefly in Europe (Hill 2014). European Commission policy development on waste has been one of the key strands. Academic institutions and think tanks, with support from some leading businesses, have built on the foundations provided by European policy to raise awareness of the circular economy concept, but translating the aspirations into more progressive policies is a mixed picture among the four countries comprising the UK.

What links the various strands of 'circular economy' discourse in the UK is 'systems thinking' – that keeping resources in productive use is not just a matter for individual firms on the one hand, or consumers on the other, but part of the whole economic system. This holistic view distinguishes these initiatives from much of waste management policy in the UK through the 1980s, 1990s and early twenty-first century, which has taken a predominantly 'end of pipe' view of the problems of waste. It is also a step on from political discourse concerning 'resource efficiency', which has often focused on industrial process efficiency rather than the whole life cycle of products, and is often unspecific as to which resources it is considering and what kind of efficiencies count most.

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