The UK population consumes 15.3 tonnes of materials per person per year, with only 7.5% reused

The UK economy consumes nearly twice as many materials per capita as the sustainable level. Without tackling overconsumption through the reuse and recycling of products, the country’s net-zero emissions pledge could prove challenging to fulfil, finds the Circularity Gap Report the United Kingdom from Circle Economy and Deloitte. 

Globally, 70% of emissions are tied to material use and handling: lowering material consumption is crucial for combating climate change. The Circularity Gap Report the United Kingdom examines the UK economy’s material use for the first time, uncovering how materials—including food and fossil fuels—are extracted, used and disposed of. The report indicates that the UK’s population consumes roughly 20% more than the global average of 12 tonnes per person, per year: 15.3 tonnes of materials per capita. This figure includes goods produced in other countries that are sold and used in the UK.

Material extraction and use is not evenly distributed across the UK. While the bulk of materials are extracted in resource-rich but sparsely populated Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they are mostly used in England, a densely populated consumption hotspot. For example, the material extraction in Scotland and Northern Ireland amounts to 22.8 and 14.5 tonnes per capita respectively, compared with the UK’s average of 6.3 tonnes. 

Of all the materials that flow through the UK’s economy, just 7.5% are used again. This is slightly above the global Circularity Metric of 7.2%. While the UK imports 80% of the total raw materials it uses, it exports vast amounts of recyclable waste, around ten times more than it imports. This disparity is partly explained by a lack of domestic recycling infrastructure. By making changes and adopting more circular solutions* in areas like construction, manufacturing and lifestyle, the UK could cut its material use by 40%, while decreasing its carbon footprint by 43%. 

For example, the mass insulation of UK’s buildings—which are older and with poorer energy labels than the European average—could greatly reduce energy use. As fossil fuels are considered materials, this would cut material consumption and move the UK closer to a circular economy. 

The study also advises rethinking revenue models for businesses and industries, for instance, by favouring rental models over single-sale, and boosting repair services. Lifestyle change also has great potential to bolster the circular economy. Buying fewer goods and keeping them longer, keeping vacation travel closer to home, and eating less meat are just a few of the behaviours that can boost circularity. If the UK were to implement all of the report’s recommendations, its economy could become 12.1% circular—almost double the current level.