Webinar highlights: Metrics for a circular economy

Blog by Bethany Çiftçi, Internal Communications Executive at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

How do we know if we’re making progress towards a more circular economy? What data are we collecting and measuring? What do we need to target or measure in the future and what could be done to improve our understanding and evidence base? These questions formed the foundation of our recent webinar. Chief External Affairs and Sustainability Officer at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, Dr Adam Read, chaired the session, and was joined by a panel of industry experts to explore the topic of metrics for a circular economy.

Before we reflect on the key takeaways from the webinar, let’s remind ourselves, what exactly is a circular economy. It’s a model of production and consumption that is based on reuse and regeneration. It’s an economic system in which raw materials, components and finished products lose as little value as possible. It’s a method of tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. In a circular economy there is a closed cycle of materials. Waste simply wouldn’t exist, because all materials, parts and products would be reused or repurposed to make something new, valuable and in demand.

Let’s get into the webinar highlights. Our first expert panellist was Libby Peake, Head of Resource Policy at Green Alliance, a charity focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. During her presentation, Libby mentioned that we’re currently facing two huge environmental crises: climate change and biodiversity loss. Both are linked by resource use, be it extraction or processing, which causes 50% of climate emissions and 90% of biodiversity loss.

Libby went on to look at some of England’s key milestones that were laid out in the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, one of which is to ‘eliminate avoidable wastes of all kinds by 2050’. She mentions that none of these milestones are legally binding, and she feels that they “fall woefully short of what we need to achieve”.

However, England does have some legally binding targets that we are working towards. One of which is to achieve a 50% reduction for a minority of wastes by 2042. Libby made a great point that the construction, demolition, and excavation sector is responsible for 62.5% of waste arisings in England, but this is mostly excluded from the aforementioned target. She also pointed out the lack of a resource productivity target that can measure how effectively we’re using resources and avoiding waste.

Libby then highlighted how some other countries are pressing ahead in terms of stating their ambitions for resource productivity, mentioning Wales and Scotland amongst others.

Libby’s presentation was concluded by the chair asking the audience whether we need more targets in the UK to achieve our goal of having a more circular economy. It was no surprise that 55% of the audience voted yes. Twenty-three per cent, however, voted no, perhaps because they felt like we don’t necessarily need more of them, but just better ones; mandatory ones targeting the right interventions and with penalties for failure.

The business case

Our second expert panellist was Nick Molho, Executive Director at Aldersgate Group, a politically neutral alliance championing a sustainable economy. Nick complemented many of Libby’s points by making a business case for the need for better targets around resource efficiency and productivity.

Nick talked about the Rebus programme that involved around 40 businesses across eight critical economic sectors in the EU. The participating businesses were given support to help transform their models and develop better resource efficiency. This resulted in significant savings for all businesses in terms of material use, water use, energy use and carbon. If these results were projected at the level of the entire EU economy, it could trigger up to €324 billion gains to gross value added (GVA) by 2030.

Looking at the UK specifically, Nick mentioned a 2016 study from SUEZ and Eunomia that discovered that an ambitious approach to resource efficiency could deliver 450,000 jobs across the country and trigger £9.1 billion to GVA gains.

Nick also touched upon the recently set Environmental Improvement Targets from DEFRA, mentioning that they were “an important milestone” that should be celebrated. However, he agreed broadly with Libby’s views and felt that our current targets are limited, and that the UK is too focused on the end of a product’s lifecycle and recycling, rather than the early stages of design and manufacturing.

To follow up Nick’s presentation and introduce the next panellist, the chair asked the audience if they think that considering residual waste is a useful measure of the circular economy. Seventy-six per cent of the audience voted yes, with the remainder voting that it is not useful. In my view, less residual waste would indicate more sustainable consumption patterns and ultimately lower production levels, two key components of the circular economy.

Shrinking residual waste

The third panellist was Emma Beal, Managing Director at West London Waste Authority (WLWA). Emma talked about the importance of focusing on “what’s left behind” and shrinking residual waste, something DEFRA have been keen to promote as one of their key environmental targets. She gave an interesting perspective on how complex it can be to put circular economy projects into practice, in terms of the resource and skills needed and the metrics you might use to monitor its progress.

Despite this, WLWA have taken around £700,000 a year that was previously being spent on waste disposal and put it into circular economy projects instead. These projects have focused on preserving the original value of a product. One example given was a furniture rescue and repair project with Petit Miracles. Every £1 spent on the project generated £4.39 in social value, supporting local communities and the upskilling of local people.

Emma made an interesting point that there are thousands of stories within each of these types of projects. She gave some great examples of this such as: “a bicycle is not scrap metal, a bicycle is a young person’s transport means to getting a job and getting themselves started and launched on their future career.” Her point being that these are the stories we should be putting in front of our political leaders to encourage them to introduce more circular solutions and business models. Although it’s mostly about protecting our environment, focusing on the other benefits that a circular economy can bring, such as social value, jobs, skills, and financial benefits, is sometimes just as important for getting certain stakeholders on board.

Following on from this, the chair asked the audience for their view; what’s the best thing to focus on when measuring progress against a circular economy? They were given three options: 56% voted for environmental savings, 32% voted for financial benefits delivered across the value chain, and only 12% voted for job opportunities and skill sets created. These results echoed how the panellists felt, in that the environmental benefits of a circular economy should be the most important, but the added benefits, that can sometimes be left in the shadows, should also be highlighted.

The landfill tax effect

Our final panellist was Stuart Hayward-Higham, Chief Technical Development and Innovation Officer at SUEZ. Stuart opens with a slide titled “landfill diversion was fit for the last century but not a circular economy.” He explained that landfill diversion has been so successful because it wasn’t just an aspiration; it had a defined measure – namely the landfill tax – implying that we need something just as concrete to help drive forward a circular economy.

Stuart went on to consider how useful it is comparing gross domestic product (GDP) with levels of waste. Although GDP is not an ideal measure of circularity, at least it’s a known and understood measure of economic growth.

Using a graph comparing GDP to total waste per site in the UK manufacturing sector from 2017 to 2022, he showed some interesting trends starting to appear. After a considerable dip in GDP in 2020, likely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see the rapid recovery followed by a steady decline. However, interestingly, resource consumption in UK manufacturing was declining at a faster rate over the same period.

Stuart concluded his presentation by saying that we can’t easily measure all material inputs and where they end up in products at a national level because the value chain is just too complex. But it’s more realistic at a sectoral, national or factory level. At factory level, a resource productivity score based on input and output can be generated, which could be a great translation of progress and measurement to put to the government for their consideration, something Stuart was keen to explain is happening right now.

So, what do we need to do to improve further? Stuart discussed the need for bin weighing for industrial, commercial, and municipal customers. If we use digital waste tracking and compare it against GDP, within two years we would have a working metric for the whole economy. At that point, we can start to discuss moving away from GDP as a proxy indicator of progress to generating other metrics to compare to waste that would help drive the next phase of evolution in circular economy activities.

In drawing the session to a close the chair asked the audience if they think that there is an alternative metric to resource productivity that could achieve the same result in measuring the circular economy – 55% voted yes (metrics like % of recyclability or % of renewable energy) and 18% voted no (resource productivity is the only option). The remaining 27% didn’t know, and I definitely fall into that category. It’s a tough question… what do you think?


Following the insights shared from the webinar, one thing is clear – measuring our progress towards circularity is necessary and doable. And once we get better at proving this, we can push for smarter, legally binding targets that will drive real change. There’s a lot to be done, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get there – baby steps, please!

You can watch the full ‘Metrics for a circular economy’ webinar here.