9 Misconceptions about the Circular Economy

(Founder, Footprints Africa)

AT its roots, the Circular Economy is an intuitive way to see the world, founded on billions of years of refinement from the world’s most highly evolved technology – nature. It has three very simple principles:

    Design out waste and pollution
    Keep products and materials in use
    Regenerate natural systems.

Footprints Africa came to Ghana to trial an approach to inclusive, regenerative economic development. A question that drives us is:

How do we make the right choices easy?

We believe the answer lies in a deep understanding of the local context, collaboration and evidence of effective practices to integrate social and environmental change into commercial strategies. To do this we have focused on 2 sectors, Catering and Industrial Waste Management and begun a mix of research, experiments and education to create evidence for a better way of moving forward.

In January, we convened senior leaders at a Circular Economy workshop* in Accra and learnt that many of the perceived barriers to transitioning to a Circular Economy are exactly that- perception. Bringing people together, we were able to unravel misconceptions that may be preventing organisations from taking the first steps. The next step? To convene key players on specific challenges, such as eradicating waste, that we can solve together: to action.
Below are key misconceptions about the Circular Economy that surfaced:

1. It’s a developed world thing
One participant lamented that in Ghana “we have to wait for technology from ‘Advanced Nations’” so would always be lagging behind. On the contrary, developed countries have a lot to learn from the ingenuity found here with regards resource use. Guinness Ghana gives brewing waste to a company producing palm weevil larvae as an alternative protein for animal feed, reducing waste and land required to grow crops to feed livestock.

2. It’s something new
In fact, the Circular Economy is simply a way to “blend new knowledge with old ways of doing things”. The principles such as “design out waste and pollution” are very much part of the traditional African values system: it used to be a huge taboo to litter water bodies; plastic packaging was not common- banana leaves were used for take-away food; and waste was mainly organic and easily returned uncontaminated to the soil through composting.
When the principles were explained to participants, all came up with examples already in existence in their businesses, such as Koko King saving money on food waste by giving it to local farmers for animal feed.

3. Developing countries will always lag behind
Transitioning to a Circular Economy requires a whole system rethink. Large investments in existing infrastructure mean that “developed nations” face greater resistance towards system change, given their vast sunk costs in the linear (waste-producing) system. Countries like Ghana have a huge opportunity to leapfrog, as shown in the oft-cited example of skipping landlines and progressing straight to mobile phones. Rather than look at the technology or infrastructure that Ghana does not have, we need to make it work for the resources: natural, mineral and human; that she does.

4. It’s about better waste management (recycling)
Better yet is to avoid material becoming waste by rethinking business models. Coca Cola’s returnable glass bottle scheme prevents packaging waste altogether. Its efficient system of collecting empty bottles when delivering new bottles to retailers optimises their transport system by benefiting from “reverse logistics”.
5. It’s impossible to do without supportive policy
Jekora Ventures has established segregated waste collection and processing with over 300 institutional clients without tax incentives to support the development of this critical infrastructure. They’ve done this despite claims that for cultural reasons Ghanaians will not segregate. As Jekora builds momentum and volumes, they are able to include households, one area at a time.

6. It’s not inclusive
Environment360 and rePATRN work with the informal sector who are far more (cost-)efficient at waste collection and segregation than expensive machinery. This creates jobs, training and formal structures for those who would otherwise be living dangerously on the fringes of society.

7. It’s not relevant to companies in the service industry
Business service providers are critical to supporting the transition to a Circular Economy. Growth Mosaic identified that one client’s agricultural waste stream would be valuable to another client’s organic fertiliser business and was able to match-make the challenge of waste for one and quality feedstock for the other.

8. It’s only for large companies who have the money
Green Africa Youth Organisation is a small NGO which is trialing charcoal briquettes made from waste coconut husks and setting up community sorting centres. The key investments are relentless enthusiasm and passion.

9. It’s too hard to do alone
You don’t have to. UNDP has done a phenomenal job to convene stakeholders to develop a Resource Recovery Platform.
The appetite for collaboration and the networking amongst participants with shared interests, especially once they identified siloed activities where they could support one another, was clear. Footprints is excited to play a role in supporting organisations across the ecosystem to work together to build mutually beneficial solutions.

In January 2019, Lancaster University Ghana created a collaborative space for Footprints Africa to put on an introductory workshop on the Circular Economy, in partnership with Lancaster University’s expert Dr Alison Stowell. The objective was to gather a cross sector of participants in Catering and Waste Management industries to discuss how they are applying the principles and the barriers they face. Footprints will use this to identify gaps in understanding and opportunities for action. particularly through collaboration. We have begun a bank of case studies of activity, such as is mentioned in this article, as part of our wider research. We will also run a programme to support businesses to adopt the principles in our target sectors, working with the B Corp framework.

By Joanna Bingham