Image of Wheal Maid mine in Cornwall taken by Richard Crane

RRfW programme leaves a legacy of radical ideas and a dynamic research community

The RRfW programme formally concludes in September 2019, but leaves a vibrant legacy. The highly diverse themes, people and projects brought together in the programme offered a fertile melting-pot within which exciting ideas and discoveries emerged and an extended community of engaged researchers, practitioners and stakeholders was built.

Key messages coming out of the programme include:

  • There are thousands of valuable resource hubs in the UK alone. Our legacy of landfilled wastes are valuable resource hubs that contain important elements for clean growth.
  • Capitalising on the resource potential. Waste treatment regulation should shift to embrace the economic, social and environmental opportunities associated with resource recovery.
  • Integrated technologies for integrated resource flows. A new generation of technologies has been developed that enables the integrated recovery of minerals and metals, biomass and/or aggregates while generating power, treating wastewater and/or restoring soils and land.
  • Extended carbon benefits of resource recovery. Resource efficiency is the single greatest potential contributor to decarbonisation of the UK economy. Moreover, resource recovery processes can turn CO2 into chemical feedstock and industrial residues into carbon sinks.
  • Low-impact, low-energy, low-cost. The integrated design of many RRfW processes optimises the use of waste materials, power, heat and light, and reduce external energy input and costs.
  • Extreme recovery. Technologies tested in the lab and/ or field proved to be extremely effective with recovery rates of targeted materials of 95-99%. ‘Second life’ use of recovered materials into value products has been shown in case histories, removing some of the barriers to change.
  • Bio-related technology for targeted recovery. Microbes have been used to selectively mobilise resources such as precious- and base metals, or engineer catalysts from waste.
  • Quality matters. To add value, waste management should focus on enhancing the quality of resources recovered, especially where large volumes are unavoidable e.g. acid mine drainage.
  • Measuring multidimensional value. The CVORR framework can account for creation of value in social, environmental and technical domains, in addition to economic aspects.
  • There are multiple types of circular economies. Each type of circular economy comes with different benefits and impacts, and this should be assessed when deciding strategies and policy.
  • Circular economy is an engine for value redistribution. Financial benefits from preserving the technical value of resources should be used in part to create environmental and social gains.

Further details on these key ideas, plus programme themes and discoveries made by individual projects, can be found in our end-of-programme brochure. In addition, we have amassed nearly 100 peer-reviewed publications, which are listed on individual project pages and the RRfW publications page. We have drawn some of these diverse outputs together into an edited book entitled ‘Resource Recovery from Wastes: Towards a Circular Economy’ (The Royal Society of Chemistry, in press). The programme additionally coordinated and contributed towards the RRfW Research Topic on the Frontiers journal platform to help raise visibility and drive momentum in the resource recovery from waste research.

RRfW worked hard to engage with industry and policy makers throughout its duration. Organisations from government to industry and the third sector co-created responses and embedded them in policy and business activities. Our policy page gives a record of the policy recommendations coming out of RRfW and our policy focused activities.

RRfW has made significant headway in supporting the radical change needed in waste and resource management landscape for a transition to a circular economy, but many challenges remain. In order to map and prioritise these challenges, RRfW organised a joint workshop with NERC in March 2019 (see our blog on future research and innovation spaces for details). The workshop highlighted that to help realise the full benefits of resource recovery and circular economy, future research and innovation will need to take whole system approaches, cross disciplines and sectors, and bring the public on board to drive political will and behaviour change.

While the Resource and Recovery from Waste programme is itself drawing to a close, we leave a large and well connected research and innovation community able to address the urgent challenges ahead.

Featured image (top) is of Wheal Maid mine in Cornwall, taken by Dr Richard Crane.