RRfW makes the case for better data to improve circular economy governance

Resource Recovery from Waste has been working with the Office for National Statistics, Defra and BEIS to develop the government use case for the proposed National Materials Datahub.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is leading on the delivery of a National Materials Datahub (NMDhub), which plans to map all resource stocks and flows in the UK. A better insight into our resources is critical to support the delivery of a circular economy to make better use of materials and reduce waste.

The NMDhub is currently in the early stages of establishing feasibility and defining requirements. RRfW has been contributing to this by developing the use case for government, working with ONS, Defra and BEIS, and drawing on the extensive evidence developed by the Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme. This use case is now available as a briefing paper, covering the governance landscape for materials, the role of government in supporting industry to make better use of material, challenges in creating a governance context that encourages circular economy uptake, and the added value of the emerging NMDhub for the governance of materials.

Circular economy approaches aim to reduce the input of natural resources into the economy, minimise waste, and optimise the environmental, social and economic values throughout the lifecycle of materials and products. In the UK a circular economy could offer benefits to the tune of £10Bn of value added to the economy by 2030, contribute considerably to carbon reduction targets by saving ca. 200 MtCO2e by 2032, and create between 205,000 and 517,000 jobs by 2030 depending on government strategy.

It is thus no surprise that circular economy ambitions have taken hold across the government, as articulated in the Industrial, Clean Growth, Bioeconomy, and Resources and Waste Strategies, amongst others. However, circular economy approaches were rooted in waste policy and progress towards implementation diverge strongly between the UK’s devolved nations. Moreover, governance of materials cross many government areas and organisations, from regional to international, with little understanding on how different policy and regulatory interventions interact across the economy as a whole.

Industry also shares ambitions to move towards a circular economy, driven by material supply benefits such as reducing costs, improved resource security, environmental benefits, and tax relief and policy incentives. While industry is taking the initial steps, they have also identified a wide range of barriers associated with the lack of governance and regulation to support their actions. Industry sees it as the government’s job to remove these barriers by providing a clear long-term government vision and strategy, improved regulation, innovation support, and investment.

In the briefing paper, RRfW has made a series of recommendations as to how government can support industry in their ambitions to make better use of materials. To do so will require significant changes in government structure, strategy, policy, regulation, legislation, and governance delivery. In order to support these changes, Government is in desperate need of a better data infrastructure for material stocks and flows, requiring new systems for data collection, storage, exchange, analysis and use in decision-making. RRfW recommends that data should be brought together on:

  • Both the stocks and flows of materials and products;
  • Throughout their lifecycles from extraction to manufacturing, consumption, and end-of-use management incl. reuse, repair, remanufacturing, recycling, controlled storage, and energy recovery;
  • On volumes, technical qualities, location and timing; and,
  • Economic, social and environmental costs and benefits at each lifecycle stage.

The NMDhub is proposed to be developed in stages over the next 10 – 12 years. Even during development, the hub could deliver benefits both for current government ambitions and the evolving governance landscape. Realising this potential will require input from stakeholders across society. Detailed conversations are on-going to prioritise the functions of the NMDhub, to ensure that data is feasible to obtain, of the right type, and of sufficient quality to be able to inform development of evidence-based governance.

The development of the NMDhub is revealing considerable gaps in expertise and knowledge regarding data systems for circular economy. This was also highlighted by a recent workshop hosted by RRfW and NERC where material and product data systems were identified as a priority area for future circular economy research and innovation. In addition, there is a need to decide which materials to focus on first, such as food, (near) critical materials for clean growth, and construction (such as discussed at recent UKRI Circular Economy workshops). Please get in touch if you would like to collaborate with RRfW on circular economy data systems in general or for specific materials.

Read the full briefing paper: The National Materials Datahub can improve governance for better material use by industry: An evidence briefing from the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme. Anne P.M. Velenturf (2019), Resource Recovery from Waste.

Written by A Velenturf

Programme Co-ordination for the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme