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What it takes to create a circular economy

This week, the International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) has gathered national delegates from 11 Pacific countries and experts in work, environment and policy for three days of knowledge sharing.

One of those experts is Dr. Samantha Sharpe. She is a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, and focuses on regional economic development, innovation, and public policy.

Here in Samoa, she will address the delegates of the I.L.O. training on circular economies: how business and government can work towards safe and sustainable lifecycles for reusable products, instead of throwing things in the bin

Dr. Sharpe said circular economies are interesting because they prompt industries to look differently at their products and services.

“Circular economies are a really good way to think about economic diversification than a traditional way we think about industry development,” she said.

“If you think of a circular economy where you recycle, reuse, and repair the material we have in operation now, you start from a different point of looking at opportunities.”

Dr. Sharpe said addressing food packaging for cooked food, rather than worrying about packaging on imports is an opportunity for local innovations. 

“With the Pacific Games next year you want no single use plastics, which demands a new way of getting food around.

“We heard you are using palm leaves as plates, which are compostable and local enterprises are providing the product and so you close a loop on that product cycle which generated new jobs,” she said.

With that, Governments can drive that innovation by putting regulations in place that prompt a need to be more creative.

“There are interesting initiatives about repairs and second hand sales in Scandinavian countries,” Dr. Sharpe said.

“You get a tax deduction if you repair certain items, there are incentives around second hand sales in certain countries, and there are lots of community groups starting repair cafés.”

That ability to fix everyday electrical goods and homeware used to be commonplace, Dr. Sharpe said, but cheaper goods drive consumers to replace broken items instead. Repair cafes are bringing that practice back.

Unfortunately, there is not yet one country doing everything right to keep as much out of landfill as possible. 

And in the Pacific, complex geographies often mean it won’t be possible to completely close production loops, as manufacturing or recycling every product simply cannot be done onshore.

One way to affect lasting change is by having businesses take more ownership over the products they sell, which could mean switching to selling a service instead.

“When those companies are responsible for products they produce, even when you’ve finished using it that means they will start seriously thinking about how they design their product to allow it to be recycled and reused, because at the moment I don’t think they seriously consider that,” she said. 

Government funding and support has a role to play here too.

“Government can also be an important first customer,” Dr. Sharpe said.

“Through public procurement programs, requiring certain sustainability criteria in government contracts, requiring a certain amount of recycled content in different things they purchase.

“It’s hard to be prescriptive, but at least signalling that they are interested in having that as a criteria in their contracts means businesses that are thinking of offering these services know they have a customer in the government,” she said.

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