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Current infrastructure investment is perpetuating a wasteful linear economy

Building a circular economy” report by Green Alliance, in collaboration with Resource Recovery from Waste, calls for an urgent rethink on infrastructure for circular economy.

Image of the front cover of the Building a Circular Economy reportCurrent patterns of infrastructure investment are perpetuating the linear economy and holding back the circular economy that all the major political parties have said they want to develop for the future. This is one of the findings from a new report by Green Alliance based on research by Phil Purnell and Anne Velenturf as part of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme.

The debate as to whether the country has the right amount of landfill or energy from waste (EfW) infrastructure has rumbled on for years. More recently there has been numerous discussions on if the UK’s recycling infrastructure can cope with recycling targets, especially in light of China’s ban on imports of ‘foreign waste’ for recycling.

However, very little has been said about the capacity of infrastructure for the activities needed to reduce resource use and support a circular economy in addition to recycling, such as for reuse, refurbishment and responsible consumption.

The report considers three scenarios for England with varying degrees of circularity and analysed what infrastructure would be required under each scenario for three common, high impact material streams from household waste: plastic, textiles and electrical equipment. The scenarios were:

  • Business as usual: England’s resource management system has a low level of circularity, with a large share of collected material sent to energy from waste (EfW) facilities.
  • High recycling: The country moves towards a more circular economy driven by planned higher recycling targets. Recycled materials would return to the economy, but often for lower value uses.
  • Transformation: In a truly circular economy, recycling would still be promoted, but only once resource value has been optimised. Industrial processes would ‘put less in’ to products in the first place, and better products and new businesses models would allow consumers to ‘get more out’ of fewer resources. Overall material use and waste could be halved.

The report finds that under the business as usual scenario vast amounts of valuable resources will continue to be lost to the economy. Around 80% of household plastics and textiles are landfilled or incinerated and nearly all electronic waste goes to low quality recycling when it enters the waste management system.

Eliminating this waste requires a major shift to different infrastructure: up to 80% less residual waste treatment infrastructure would be needed in a transformative circular system for plastic, electronics and clothing. Instead, new business models, facilities and logistics would reduce consumption and enable takeback, repair, remanufacture and reuse of products.

Prof Phil Purnell notes “There’s plenty of support for the idea of a circular economy, including from government departments and big high street names such as Apple and IKEA. However, by failing to invest in the right infrastructure that supports reduced resource use, we are perpetuating the linear economy. We urgently need to change focus. A high value circular economy could generate billions of pounds for the economy, deliver half a million clean green jobs, and be a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.”

The report makes three recommendations to set the wheels in motion:

  • Carry out an infrastructure stocktake: To inform decision makers as to what infrastructure is needed, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority should lead a stocktake of existing and planned infrastructure for all materials and waste streams, assessing their ability to create a circular economy. Future assessments should be created in close cooperation with the National Infrastructure Commission and should concentrate on the country’s capacity for reuse, repair and remanufacturing, and recycling.
  • Set up a materials database within five years: Better resource management requires much better data on material and product stocks and flows. ONS has proposed a National Material Datahub, but is waiting on funding for an initial two year pilot project. Given the role of data in planning and creating a more circular economy, the next government should not only confirm the go ahead but fast track the development of the Datahub, committing to it being fully functional for at least two sectors in five years.
  • Create a £400 million circular economy starter fund: The government should invest in upstream circular economy infrastructure and business models that have so far struggled to attract private funding. Such upstream activities can deliver carbon savings through better design, durability, reuse, refurbishment and high quality recycling.

Without the right infrastructure in place, we will remain locked into a linear economy. Strategic planning of new infrastructure is needed to ensure the development of an economy which minimises resource use and waste, by lowering demand for new goods, through reuse, repair, repurposing and remanufacturing of products. It is vital that the next government sets the strategy now to put in place the systems and infrastructure needed for a successful transition to a transformative circular economy.

The Building a circular economy report was produced by Green Alliance in partnership with the Resource Recovery from Waste programme. For interviews, contact pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk or +44(0)113 343 4031.

Feature image (top) by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay