Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport forum: British infrastructure not ready for circular economy

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme has a vision of a high value circular economy that delivers clean growth, a better environment and social benefits such as skills and jobs. We work closely with our partners in government and business to turn this vision into action.

A high value circular economy should retain the economic, environmental and social value of materials by preserving their technical qualities rather than losing them in combustion. To achieve this, we need to have the right infrastructure in place. The Resource Recovery from Waste review of existing and planned waste and recovery infrastructure in the UK found that it is certainly not ready to support the circular economy, and neither is it likely to be without radical government intervention.

At the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport forum “Priorities for UK waste and recycling policy and developing the circular economy” on 18 January 2018, Lee Davies (Defra) argued that better data is needed to underpin a circular, resource efficient network; however, Andy Rees (Welsh Government) described how collection of such data remains a challenge. Better data on the flows, volumes and qualities of recycled materials is needed to support secondary resource markets. This will reduce risk and enable confident investment in infrastructure. It also enables risk sharing throughout the supply chain. This is crucial because as Marcus Gover (WRAP) explained, we need to consider production, consumption and recycling holistically. Promoting circular supply chains requires data on material flows in production and consumption, as well as downstream processing. It also means adopting new metrics that describe the technical qualities of material flows, not just their tonnage.

Policy and regulation in support of resource productivity are expected to change, as highlighted by Ian Boyd (Defra) and Libby Peake (Green Alliance) at the recent Resource Recovery from Waste conference. The development of coherent government initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy, Clean Growth Plan, 25 Year Environment Plan, and forthcoming Resource and Waste Strategy helps clarify the direction of travel, as expressed at the forum by Nadeem Arshad (Bevan Brittan). The repeated ambition for a circular, low-carbon economy expressed in these is positive. Now the Government needs to translate the plans into actions. It must provide detail in the National Infrastructure Plan of how the necessary reuse, recycling and recovery infrastructure to support a circular economy will be put in place. This is particularly important for the critical materials required by the technology that will enable a low-carbon economy, of which we are 100% importers. While future innovation will be needed, as Lee Davies stated in his response to this note, immediate action should be taken to balance investment into circular economy infrastructure. Currently, 80% of funded waste infrastructure projects are for energy recovery; part of the budget must be redirected towards infrastructure that supports e.g. repair, remanufacturing, recycling and recovery.

Resource Recovery from Waste has been awarded with a NERC Policy Impact grant to increase collaboration with government. Read more about this new project in our latest newsletter, and get in touch for further details and explore how we can work together.

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Written by A Velenturf

Programme Co-ordination for the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme