Future research and innovation spaces for resource recovery and circular economy

Report released from workshop on research and innovation challenges for resource recovery and circular economy, hosted jointly by RRfW and NERC in March 2019.

Resource recovery has the potential to contribute towards solving many important world challenges, from delivering on the UN sustainability goals, climate change agenda, resource security and productivity, through to supporting developing economies to grow in a sustainable way.

During its time the RRfW programme has developed resource recovery tools and technologies to support such goals (see our end-of-programme brochure), but there is much more left to be done.

With this in mind RRfW and NERC held a joint workshop on 18 March 2019 with the aim of identifying the research and innovation spaces where further investments in resource recovery and circular economy could make a valuable contribution. Participants were invited from across the RRfW network and UK research councils, spanning disciplines and sectors.

To encourage broad thinking, participants were asked to think about key research and innovation challenges associated with the life-cycle stages of design, take, make, use, dispose, store and natural reserves, as proposed in our recent perspective on integrated resources for circular economy. Insights from the workshop were combined with challenges previously identified by RRfW.

The main challenge areas identified, in order of priority, were:

  • Designing out waste: improving lifespan of products and ability to retain materials in the system
  • Human behaviour: changing consumption patterns and increasing engagement
  • New business models: to allow transition to zero waste and reduction of over production
  • Developing the policy landscape: determining barriers and interventions that work
  • Better metrics to measure multi-dimensional values: including environmental and social gains
  • Circular bio-economy: retaining/creating valuable bio-resources and treating soils as a resource
  • Global circularity: circular supply chains across borders and circularity for developing economies
  • Waste processing processes and technologies: including landfill mining and resource storage
  • Contributing to a low-carbon economy: inform consumer choice and circular low-carbon energy
  • Better data gathering: for monitoring progress, traceability of waste and resource storage
  • Resource security and productivity: greatest risks and opportunities for resource security

Participants were also asked to consider solution directions to the challenges identified. The prioritised solution directions were found to fall within the following themes:

  • Changing consumption systems: Improving resource efficiency and preparing for a low-carbon society, changing consumer behaviour and developing material/product passports/labelling.
  • Resource repositories and resource recovery systems: Processing or storing materials with the aim to recover all resources for further use or safe return to natural bio/geo/chemical processes.
  • Business model innovation: Circular economy business models that promote durable products that facilitate reuse, repair and upgrade/remanufacturing, and better design linked to EPR.
  • Material and product data systems: Insight into natural capital and anthropogenic ores, tracking the value of resources through supply chains. Quality guarantees, information provision.

The workshop results highlight that there is still considerable research and innovation required to support realising the full benefits of resource recovery and circular economy. The challenges identified underlines the need for whole system approaches, crossing disciplines and sectors, and bringing the public on-board to drive political will and behaviour change.

The insights gained from this workshop have been shared with NERC and other research funders to inform them of research and innovation needs in this area, and were further shared by RRfW at the wider UKRI Circular Economy workshops (June 2019). They were also used as a basis for a proposal by RRfW for a NERC highlight topic, submitted in May 2019, on the integration of restoration and enhancement of natural capital into circular economy.

The urgency with which we need to move from a destructive linear economy to a sustainable circular economy means that we need to reach for transformative change. While the Resource and Recovery from Waste programme is itself drawing to a close, we leave a large and well connected research community able to address these urgent challenges and we welcome new collaborations. Please get in touch if you are interested in working with us on any of these future challenges.

We thank all our participants for their time and effort to share their insights. We are grateful for the support from NERC in the organisation of the workshop.

A full workshop report is available here:
Research and innovation challenges for resource recovery and circular economy: Workshop proceedings. June 2019. Resource Recovery from Waste