Healthy doughnuts!

Report cover: circular economies and sustainable health and well-being. The public health impact of public bodies refocusing on waste reduction and reuse in Wales. Picture of wales map with circular icon over top and held in a hand with images around - health impact assessment

Healthy doughnuts!

This newly released assessment from Public Health Wales provides a novel look at circular economy approaches and their impact on health and well-being. 

The focus of this assessment is on the population of Wales with wider implications for how these health impacts are considered elsewhere and includes a review of the impact of Covid-19 on this topic – from face mask waste to closing repair cafes.  Urban Habitats contributed to the report including the final assessments of impacts and a rapid review of Covid-19 impacts.  We are delighted to see the work now published.

The assessment started well before anyone had heard of Covid-19 and indeed terminology has developed over this time.  The assessment started looking at reduce, reuse, recycle which we are perhaps more familiar to many of us and evolved to look more broadly at circular economy approaches which have become much more central to discussion not least due to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Prof. Kate Raworth’s book – Doughnut Economics… although we did conclude doughnuts perhaps would have sent the wrong message for a public health report title!

We encourage you to read the report which is split into an Executive Summary, Summary Report, and Supporting Information Report available at the Welsh Health Impact Assessment Unit’s website.   The infographic at this link summarises key findings.

Here we focus on some notable points beyond the findings that stand out for us:

It’s not (just) about waste: it’d be easy to think this topic is all about waste and recycling – park that thought here.  What this is really about is everything we use day to day – whatever you are touching, standing on, or use during today is affected by the issue of resource use: buildings, clothes, food, vehicles, smartphones, …everything really.  And the issue is that much of this ‘stuff’ is made by digging resources, materials, etc. out of a hole in the ground; turning it into products; and when we are done with them putting them back in a hole in the ground as waste.  Some of it gets recycled, yes and Wales is really good at this, but other waste doesn’t really stay in the ground it creates plastic pollution in the sea, it get incinerated, and it ties up potentially valuable resources that we classify as ‘waste’ meaning we then go and dig another hole to extract more resources to make more stuff!  These processes have an effect on health including through their contribution to climate change as they account for nearly half of all carbon emissions.

We need to reshape our ideas around waste: a circular approach seeks to make sure that finite resources (e.g. steel, concrete, plastic) get reused and kept in use as long as possible and that other ones (e.g. food) are produced in a regenerative way.  And all of this is powered by renewables in a circular economy.  So instead of ‘waste’ let’s think ‘valuable resources’.  The image below shows the concept: everything (as far as possible) stays in a constant loop of reuse and regeneration.  It’s a big difference from where we are currently.

Diagram with two loops left and right. Right finite materials: recycle, refurbish remanufacture, reuse, redistribute, maintain, prolong.  Left: reneewables flow management, farming, regeneration, biogas, anaerobic digestion, extraction of biochmeical feedstock, cascades.  Minimise systemic leakage and negative externalities.
Image credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Waste sector workers are heroes: when Covid-19 arrived in the UK it was classified on the same list of diseases as Ebola.  We didn’t know how it spread or who was at most risk.  Waste was considered a potential transmission route.  And despite this household and other waste collections, vital for other public health reasons, were continued during the pandemic.  In the face of such unknowns these key workers and others kept going – those working in the waste sector deserve their own shout out we think for such a heroic level of dedication.

Wales is great at recycling: let’s get cracking on reducing and reusing: Wales has a well-deserved reputation as a global leader in recycling.  This enthusiasm and success now needs applied to reducing and reusing – Wales does still produce more municipal waste per person than England and Scotland.  Some evidence suggests that what works for recycling might not for reduce & reuse so we need to be careful of that – just cause we recycle all our delivery boxes isn’t a reason to just by more stuff!

Third Sector Reuse & Repair need boosted: much reuse happens in charity shops, stuff gets fixed by volunteers in places like Repair Café Wales, and everything from tents to tools get borrowed from library of things like Benthyg Cymru: why not free up some storage space and instead of a hundred sheds with a hundred lawn mowers on a street have one shed with a few of each to share?  Charity shops and repair cafes were largely closed during Covid-19 so in future these need to develop and be understood as essential services.

Clear action toward equity & justice: reducing health inequalities is one of Urban Habitats’ values and circular approaches can help to achieve this – crucially potential negative consequences must also be assessed and avoided or minimised too.  A move to a circular economy needs to be one that aims to create equity.  The report identified that as well as affecting everybody (whole population) that circular economy approaches can particularly affect (both positively and negatively) people in low-mid level occupations and people living in areas classified as disadvantaged.

It was timely that the work of the First Minister’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic* COVID-19 Advisory Group was able to be referenced within this assessment (* that report explains further its use of this language).  Of course, the inequities this group identified reflects what people who experience racism know already and live with.  The circular economy assessment sets out areas for future action.

For people already struggling to make ends meet the UK economy is already facing job losses at certain levels – think of areas like administration, secretarial, plant and machinery operatives.  It is notable that circular economy approaches, whist they can’t solely address this, can create jobs at various levels of skill where many of these existing skills like customer service and mechanical skills can be readily transferred to, think of areas like repair.

And geographically circular economy approaches provide the opportunity to locate the benefits of circular economy approaches more locally.  This is important for Wales considering how the population is distributed across the country: what works for dispersed communities is likely to be different than what works in cities and towns.

White background with circular magnet and metal screws stuck to it and scattered around.
Image credit: Dan Christian Padure, Unsplash

The answers are clear and yes challenging: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has demonstrated how applying circular approaches to products involving cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food would have a huge impact.  Action in these areas would be equivalent to cutting the entire current emission from all transport to nothing.  Welsh Government has set a policy of reaching zero waste by 2050.  The implications of this are significant and so it is our actions in the next few years that will make a major difference and contribution.  What this report does is set out the significant health benefits that can be realised in the process and how to do so in a way that creates health with communities and works to reduce health and wider inequalities.

What does it mean for my sector / field / public body? What is exciting for us next – and we are keen to hear from organisations interested in doing more on this – is to see how different sectors integrate assessment of health and well-being into their work on circular economy approaches.  Many organisations are already looking for example at decarbonisation and resource use is central to this.  Of course, what this means for a local authority or a health board or environmental management are all different.  There seems to be great opportunity for shared thinking between and across these similar types of public bodies.

Get in touch

If you’d like to know more about this topic or are thinking of how the shift toward circular economy approaches in your organisation can help create health with communities please get in touch.

Mark Drane