Is the UK’s waste infrastructure ready for a circular economy?

Are we ready for a circular economy? The debate rumbles on as to whether we need to build more energy-from-waste facilities, the Chinese import ban on plastic recycling looks set to cause headaches in 2018, and Brexit raises both opportunities and issues for resource and waste management in the UK.

Addressing some of these issues is a new open-access article by RRfW convener Prof Phil Purnell in the journal Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, which asks whether our current and planned waste and resource recovery infrastructure will be able to deliver the goal of a circular economy. The review starkly concludes that it isn’t ready and neither is it likely to be without radical interventions.

The ideal of a circular economy has caught the attention of governments and industry [1] over recent years for good reasons. It promotes resource productivity and reduces our reliance on imports, it has the potential to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions and help build a more sustainable future. However, the British waste management sector retains much of its 19th Century focus on public health and 20th Century environmental protection concerns. Our legacy infrastructure and associated regulation is struggling to adapt to a new resource productivity paradigm.

Our current regulation, directly or indirectly, retains two deficiencies that are impeding progress towards a circular economy:

  1. A lack of data, because those creating waste are only charged with collecting data in relation to hazardous materials or specific (EU) laws, regulations and directives; and
  2. A lack of public investment, because in many cases, the narrow targets under this legislation have been ‘met’ so no further investment need is perceived.

In terms of data, the main problem is not a shortage per se, but that little of it is mutually compatible. The data collected and procedures they help to enforce were not designed to promote a circular economy but rather to meet specific EU reporting targets that prioritise public and environmental health. This is reflected in the piecemeal quality of the data, in which double counting is inevitable. Without reliable data on mass flows (and their consequent value or potential to provide stable income streams) it’s not possible to reliably predict if there will be a gap between capacity and requirements, which impedes both investment and strategic decision-making.

Veolia_EfW_640px-Leeds_RERF_4_August_2017-Wikimedia
Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility in Leeds (Veolia UK). The facility is designed to remove recyclable waste from black bins and recover energy from what is left over. It will significantly reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill. Image by Chemical Engineer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
This limited strategic decision-making is reflected by a lack of diversity in UK waste infrastructure investment. Of the solid waste projects highlighted in the National Infrastructure Plan, 80% are Energy from Waste plants. However, this over-reliance on Energy from Waste creates an infrastructure that paradoxically relies on the continued creation of suitable waste, reducing incentives for reuse and recycling. In addition, burning waste for energy destroys technical value and removes materials from the supply chain, rendering the residues only suitable for low value applications and disposal. For a truly circular economy, this should be a last resort and not the dominant technology. Conversely, options further up the waste hierarchy such as reduction, repair and reuse – which offer much more in way of ‘bang for buck’ for reducing waste volumes – are currently under-promoted. Driving a change from waste treatment to waste prevention will require a spread of responsibility for end-of-life resources from the waste management industry to include the entire supply chain from designers, manufacturers, retailers, users and material reprocessors.

In order to ‘close the loop’ and move from the current focus on waste treatment to the desired high-value circular economy, the review argues that political leadership and public investment will be needed. The review suggests that this should be achieved through the radical change of moving responsibility for waste management regulation away from the environment agencies to a new Office for Resource Stewardship. This body should have the specific focus of protecting national interests by enforcing efficient use of materials, preventing waste and encouraging reuse and recycling. The review concludes that as the UK embarks on a new industrial strategy and world trade relations, this is the ideal time to reimagine the resource recovery industry as an engine for sustainable growth at home and a crucible from which we export the science, technology and services required for a global circular economy. In order to ‘close the loop’ and move from the current focus on waste treatment to the desired high-value circular economy, the review argues that political leadership and public investment will be needed. The review suggests that this should be achieved through the radical change of moving responsibility for waste management regulation away from the environment agencies to a new Office for Resource Stewardship. This body should have the specific focus of protecting national interests by enforcing efficient use of materials, preventing waste and encouraging reuse and recycling. The review concludes that as the UK embarks on a new industrial strategy and world trade relations, this is the ideal time to reimagine the resource recovery industry as an engine for sustainable growth at home and a crucible from which we export the science, technology and services required for a global circular economy.

The full paper on which this article is based can be found here:Phil Purnell (2017): On a voyage of recovery: a review of the UK’s resource recovery from waste infrastructure. Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1405654 Open Access. Published online: 08 Dec 2017

The key messages from the paper are also summarised in a presentation given by Prof Purnell at the Resource Recovery from Waste Conference 2017, which is available for download from the conference webpage.

[1]: The following references give some insight into government and industry thinking in this area, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list…

  • National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016-2020, page 64 – ‘an ambition to move towards a ‘circular economy’ where material resources are valued and kept in circulation’. Report pdf.
  • Industrial Strategy White Paper (2017), page 148 – ‘we are committed to moving towards a more circular economy’. Report pdf.
  • ‘From waste to resource productivity’ report (2017) of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, page 6 –  ‘review [ ] innovative circular economy practice throughout the economy’. Report pdf.
  • HS2 circular economy principles, page 2. HS2’s vision is to be ‘a catalyst for growth and we believe that adoption of circular economy principles can play a key role in delivering this’. Report pdf.
  • Apple UK. ‘Our goal is a closed-loop supply chain’. Apple resources webpage.
  • IKEA: Towards zero waste ‘We have decided to eliminate waste from all our operations and to be energy independent by 2020’. IKEA waste webpage.
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