Circular Economy

Current development approaches often result in economic growth at the expense of the natural world, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We are working on economic models that can better address poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and inequality.

A new way of thinking

In the developing world there is a huge and growing waste problem. Currently, 9 million people die every year due to the mismanagement of waste and pollutants. That's 20 times more people than die of malaria. If we ignore this waste problem, we will miss a key opportunity to save lives and create jobs for people living in poverty.

The circular economy is a new way of thinking about the world. Our current way of doing things is linear: we take natural resources, make items, use them and then throw them away. At this end point all the energy, water and materials used in making the items are thrown away too. The circular economy, however, keeps resources in use for as long as possible. We are working to help communities around the world to embrace the circular economy - creating jobs and saving lives.

A triple win for developing countries

In 2016 we published the Virtuous Circle report (PDF 867 KB), highlighting - for the first time in the development sector - the scale of the circular economy opportunity in developing countries. This alternative growth model could reduce the tension between lifting people out of poverty and protecting the planet, providing a triple win: 

  • increasing productivity and economic growth 
  • improving the quality and quantity of employment 
  • saving lives by cleaning up the environment 

Since then we have continued to work with others to research and share how this opportunity can be grasped, dramatically increasing the scope for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Burning Question – will companies reduce their plastic use?

This report focuses on the actions and responsibilities of four of the world’s biggest plastic polluters: CocaCola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. These companies continue to sell billions of products in single-use bottles, sachets and packets in developing countries. And they do this despite knowing that: 1) waste isn’t properly managed in these contexts; 2) their packaging therefore becomes pollution; and 3) such pollution causes serious harm to the climate and people’s health. In this report, we present the first estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions created by the open burning of each company's plastic waste in six focus countries. The challenge is clear: companies need to step up the pace and scale of their action on plastic, the burning question is: are they up to it?

Read now

The full report is also available as an executive summary. The executive summary is also available in Portuguese.


No time to waste – The plastic pollution crisis (PDF 2 MB)
Plastic pollution is damaging the health and livelihoods of millions of people living in poverty. This report outlines the problem - the huge recent increase in the distribution of single-use plastics across the globe to countries lacking the capacity to collect and manage waste. And it presents the solutions - while developing country governments and citizens around the world are an important part of the solution, primary responsibility lies squarely with MNCs and developed country governments to invest in systemic change.
The full report is also available in Portuguese (PDF 3.4 MB), while the executive summary of this report is available in French (PDF 768 KB), Spanish (PDF 766 KB) and Portuguese (PDF 768 KB).

Successful approaches to solid waste management in low- and middle-income countries (PDF 490 KB)
We are on the verge of an environmental and public health crisis caused by waste. Three billion people lack access to safe waste management and disposal, and waste streams are increasing rapidly around the globe. This briefing paper demonstrates that we can effectively respond to this crisis, by scaling up approaches that are already delivering results.

Tackling plastic waste and pollution for human health and marine biodiversity – a call for global action (PDF 2 MB)
This joint position paper with Flora and Fauna International, WasteAid and IDS summarises the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and people in poverty in developing countries. It recommends the steps that high income governments and multinational companies need to take to deal with plastic waste and pollution.

Bending the curve
Which circular economy interventions work in practice to create income, health and environmental benefits in developing countries? Based on in-depth reviews of existing literature, this report identifies a range of development interventions that are proven and replicable in a variety of low- and middle-income contexts. The infographic summarizes the most promising interventions, along with the range of benefits that they offer.

Full report (PDF 458 KB)
Infographic (JPG 123 KB)

Cost-benefit assessment of community-based recycling and waste management in Pakistan (PDF 866 KB)
This joint paper with the Institute of Development Studies assesses a replicable community-based approach to waste management in Pakistan. The approach returns ten dollars in benefits for every dollar invested, and results in new jobs, fewer premature deaths, less diarrhoeal disease and fewer carbon emissions. The centre became self-financing in its third year, reducing the need for more expensive, centralised waste management facilities by up to 90 per cent.

Sharing Economy (PDF 606 KB)
This report from Tearfund and The Institute for Sustainable Futures is the first to consider the role of sharing apps in reducing poverty. Our research suggests that sharing apps could drive sustainable development, and recommends investment in technology and support for the most pro-poor applications, as well as identifying the barriers to further expansion of the sharing economy in developing countries.

Going full circle: Tackling resource reduction and inequality (PDF 357 KB)
Inequality is about a broken economic system, but there is an alternative. Through a fair circular economy, better and more jobs are created. Health is improved. Those normally marginalised from the economy are valued for the vital role they play. This joint paper with the St Paul’s Institute explores the role policy-makers, businesses, researchers and non-governmental organisations can play.

How will Europe’s Ecodesign measures affect the circular economy in low-income countries? (PDF 862 KB)
In developing countries, millions of people already make their living from circular trades such as repair and recycling. The way we design our products in the EU - the toxic chemicals we permit and the ease of repair that we require - has a strong influence over their livelihoods. But these impacts are not currently considered. This paper explores how the EU’s design standards could be used to enhance rather than endanger these people’s lives.

Smoke Screen: why the UK must turn its back on incineration (PDF 1.4 MB)
Incineration is being touted as the panacea to a mounting global waste crisis, despite damning evidence of the damage it causes to people and the planet. This report explores why the UK should turn its back on incineration and embrace the circular economy as a solution to the global waste crisis.

Why Advocate on Waste and a Circular Economy? (PDF 1.7 MB)
This booklet sets out why advocacy on waste is so important, and provides ways of helping individuals and organisations do it at a national or local level, through the church and local communities.
This resource is also available in Portuguese (PDF 750 KB)

Virtuous Circle (PDF 867 KB)
The circular economy offers an unparalleled opportunity. It’s good for the economy, good for people and good for the planet. This joint report by Tearfund and the Institute of Development Studies outlines the triple win that the circular economy offers for low and middle-income countries.

Closing the Loop
This report presents evidence that emerging economies can leapfrog development stages and implement an economic model that is better for both society and the environment. If implemented correctly, the circular economy could make it possible to maintain the natural world at the same time as benefiting the poorest groups in society.

Closing the Loop - English - full report (PDF 721 KB), summary (PDF 655 KB)
Closing the Loop - Portuguese - full report (PDF 726 KB), summary (PDF 385 KB)