In our groundbreaking book, Waste to Wealth (2015), Accenture identified $4.5 trillion in additional economic value that can be generated by the circular economy by 2030. A circular economy shifts away from many organizations’ centuries old approach of “take, make, and dispose,” creating closed loop processes that minimize waste and aim to continuously regenerate value with the inputs at hand.
This approach is more than just a recycling strategy, which emphasizes repurposing waste after it’s been created. Building a true circular economy means completely reimagining the value chain, or the full set of activities involved in delivering value to customers through a product or service, from concept to distribution.
Circular economy principles can be used to transform federal government operations by providing a holistic framework to look across systems and better understand our resources, relationships, and interdependencies. By doing so, we can break down silos and capture new forms of value, with an emphasis on continuously reusing and repurposing social, economic, technological, and natural resources. This can enable more sustainable, efficient, and resilient government operations.
Imagine this perspective as we tackle climate change. In our warming world, practices like limiting carbon emissions have historically aimed to decrease or stop negative effects. By harnessing circular economy principles, captured carbon and other GHGs could instead be viewed as a commodity. Carbon is sequestered then turned into useful goods such as plastics, fibers, and other resources that can be used in our daily lives. We no longer aim for just net-zero – instead, we create a net-positive.
Growth of circular economies
The concept of circular economies extends back to at least the 1960s. William McDonough, author of the 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle,” is known for pushing the concept of circular economies into modern discourse.
Now, the approach is increasingly seen as necessary to meeting essential climate goals: “…We need to redesign our economy — eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature — to reduce emissions and meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement,” writes the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal, the EU’s flagship strategy for tackling climate change.
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For the U.S. federal government, we’re pleased to see the concept of a circular economy gaining traction:
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Beyond 34 initiative is working to boost the nation’s recycling rate. Specifically, the group is engaged with local municipalities to scale the circular economy in their communities, employing a three-tier model to engage critical stakeholders, identify areas of greatest impact, and empower communities to implement specific solutions.
- A recent U.S. Senate hearing considered how Congress can promote a more sustainable economy through efforts targeting both producers and consumers.
- The new Executive Order on Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability takes steps to promote the circular economy within federal operations. According to the EO, “Each agency shall minimize waste . . . and promote a transition to a circular economy, [as defined in section 2 of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act (Public Law 116-224),] by annually diverting from landfills at least 50 percent of non-hazardous solid waste, including food and compostable material, and construction and demolition waste and debris by fiscal year 2025; and 75 percent by fiscal year 2030.”
Yet, more can be done to catalyze circular economies across government and the time to do so is now. By adopting a circular economy mindset, federal agencies can create and achieve more value from their systems while simultaneously working toward a more sustainable and resilient future for generations to come.
Shared services are an example of circular value that already exists in government operations today. At Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Services - Administrative Resource Center, participating government agencies achieve greater business and operational value by sharing financial management services. The shared service helps eliminate duplication and administrative redundancies, support operational efficiencies, and free the federal workforce to further focus on priority tasks within their individual agencies.
A tool to bring circular economy to life
To help federal agencies identify new forms of circular value and eliminate waste, we created the Regenerative Canvas, a simple, yet effective tool that seeks to reframe value to minimize leakage and illuminate new, more effective ways of operating.
Combining Systems Thinking and elements of other known tools, such as the Value Proposition Canvas and the Business Model Canvas, we ask clients to begin by conceptualizing anything, though we recommend starting small – a single product, solution, or even a piece of trash.
- Begin with the end in mind: How can you start to think about waste differently and reimagine its value?
- Consider what resources are available to you as you reimagine – natural, technical, energy, human, or financial?
- Next, consider what new value is available/hidden that can be unlocked and reimagined?
- Lastly, consider how it could be used in a new way – redistributed or remanufactured? How could you avoid disposing?
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To build sustainable and regenerative ecosystems, we must continuously identify and maximize where we receive value.
The systems driving government operations are increasingly complex and interdependent. As such, it is imperative that agencies reframe their perspective on value using concepts such as circular economy, whether by leveraging existing structures like shared services, reimagining waste, creating new ways of working, or developing new organizational models. Doing so will ensure we build processes that both operate effectively and do not deplete our fragile environment.
At its core, circular economy is about the mindset and behavioral changes that enable future value creation – in essence, government sustained and regenerated.