There is growing interest in the circular economy as a strategy for helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In low- and middle-income countries, initial case studies have shown that circular approaches hold great potential for increasing incomes, creating jobs, reducing the mortality and morbidity caused by pollution, and protecting ecosystems.
This paper takes the evidence base to the next stage, summarizing the findings from five sector-specific literature reviews (urban waste, e-waste, industrial symbiosis, the sharing economy and agricultural waste). These studies assessed the barriers to the circular economy and examined the evidence base for good practice interventions that overcome these obstacles.2 Here, we crystallize the key findings in order to focus discussion on which areas are most deserving of further consideration (through primary research, pilot projects or replication).
We have divided the circular economy practices we found into three broad categories: proven, evolving and speculative. Proven approaches are practices with a strong evidence base across different regional and country contexts. Evolving practices are those where the evidence base is patchier. The speculative category includes an area of major concern, with a few examples of best practice (e-waste) and two approaches to agricultural waste that have high potential benefits but rely on as-yet-unproven technology.
This paper provides compelling evidence for the economic, health and environmental benefits – and cost effectiveness – of several circular economy interventions. These approaches are suitable to be replicated at scale. They include community-based recycling, industrial symbiosis, anaerobic digestion, agroecology and briquette production. Each of these approaches has the potential to be implemented in a way that empowers marginalized and poor communities, and Tearfund partners are already using several of these methods in the field. Other interventions show promise but require further piloting and research, with the most pressing of these being e-waste.
Thus far, attention has focused on the gains that developed countries and multinational companies (MNCs) can make from the circular economy by creating value through producing more from less. It is equally if not more important for people living in poverty and developed countries to have the opportunity to create value from the circular economy, if the circular economy is not to exacerbate global economic inequalities and power imbalances.