A globe moves toward a greener closed loop representing a Circular Economy

Solving the paradox of resource scarcity and waste overload

The world is currently suffering from the double whammy of limited resources being over exploited, whilst at the same time an estimated 22 billion tonnes of waste is generated every year – roughly 4 tonnes per person.  This paradox could in part be solved by moving to a circular economy, where resources are recovered and reused instead of being disposed of as waste. However, movement in this direction has been slow. In a new open-access article recently published in the Sustainability journal, RRfW Coordinator Anne Velenturf and leading academic Phil Purnell from the University of Leeds set out how the Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme is addressing this problem. They argue that academia is well placed to contribute to the advances in science, technology and economic models needed for a truly circular economy. However, in order for research to effectively contribute to the required paradigm shift it must first engage with interested groups at all levels through a process of participatory action research.

Waste and resource management will be key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Out of 17 goals, 12 directly contain targets to improve waste and resource managements. The various targets proposed will require far-reaching changes for both industry and society. However, these changes will be necessary in order to stay within the planetary boundaries. The paper identifies nine planetary boundaries, which give the ‘safe operating space’ for humanity. Of these, four boundaries have already been crossed – for climate change, excess crop fertilisers, loss of biodiversity and land use. The ways in which resources are extracted, produced, used and wasted are all contributing to the rate at which we are crossing these planetary boundaries. Transforming waste and resource management must play a key part in changing these self-destructive pathways.

The current way of thinking about waste and resource flows is linear, with resources being extracted or grown, processed into products, consumed and then wasted. In contrast, the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme defines a circular economy approach as one that would:

“keep resources in use as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life”

Moving to a circular economy would have multiple benefits, for example, reducing demand for extracting new resources would also reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. But to increase circularity, the focus needs to move from just ‘end-of-pipe’ treatments to include changes at the product design and manufacturing stages. Products must be brought to market that are more amenable to being reused, dismantled and / or recycled. In addition, all stages of the supply chains need to be redesigned to prevent the technical, environmental, social and economic value of materials from leaking into waste at any point of the product life cycle. In order to deliver such a shift in thinking, we need to engage people at all levels from designers, manufacturers, consumers, waste processers to politicians, regulators and NGOs who can support markets and drive changes in behaviour.

One approach to engage multiple groups of people at across multiple areas is to use participatory governance. This involves an engagement process that can range from informing, to listening, consulting, co-producing, co-deciding and full autonomy. There are many advantages to this approach, including bringing a diversity of viewpoints and expertise to identify and solve particular problems, and generating greater commitment and impact. The academic community can adapt these techniques through participatory action research, with the aim of both bringing about societal change and contributing to scientific progress. This approach has been adopted on the RRfW programme and the paper outlines our strategy for this. By engaging with people and organisations from across the resource and waste area, we have been able to get our research to where it is needed and, in the process, identify and tackle new needs. As this approach runs through the core of the programme, it is still on-going. This autumn will see a further four participatory knowledge exchange workshops and our annual meeting for 2017 will open the debate as to how we can make the business case for resource recovery.

The full paper on which this article is based can be found here:

Anne Velenturf and Phil Purnell (2017) “Resource Recovery from Waste: Restoring the Balance between Resource Scarcity and Waste Overload” Sustainability 9 (9), 1603; doi:10.3390/su9091603 Open Access.