Urgent action needed by government departments to keep circular economy on track post-Brexit

Current patterns of production and consumption are driving the twin environmental crises of resource scarcity and waste overload. This can be tackled by moving away from our current consume-and-dispose economy to a circular economy, where resources are recovered and reused instead of being disposed of as waste. However, movement in this direction has been slow.

In order to promote such a transition to a circular economy, the Resource Recovery from Waste programme (RRfW) has been working with academia, government and industry to develop a shared vision and approach. Insights from their engagement with governmental actors have recently been published in the journal Sustainability.

In the paper, the authors compare the outcomes of interviews with waste and resource specialists from a diversity of governmental departments with the Governments’ formal published visions, strategies, and plans for the promotion of a circular economy, resource recovery, and waste management in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The governmental specialists broadly agreed on a vision of a circular economy that maximises the value of materials by keeping them in the economy for as long as possible, moving away from end-of-pipe approaches and instead designing durability and recyclability into the economy (for a fuller description, please see our previous blog posts: effective government-academic collaborations, policy and regulatory approaches, and key changes and pivot points).

Comparing this vision described by the governmental specialists with official strategies and plans showed that parts of this vision have already been incorporated in policy and regulation. However, there are large differences in the extent to which this has been achieve across the four nations in the UK, with England especially falling behind the pack (see Table 1). In addition, any existing coherence appears to be mostly driven by a desire to comply with EU directives. With the uncertainty of Brexit looming on the horizon, it is not clear to what degree the UK as a whole or individual nations will continue to implement such directives. As such, the lack of coherence highlighted in Table 1 is likely to get worse unless concerted policy action is taken soon by BEIS, Defra and their devolved counterparts.

Table 1 Comparative analysis of key themes distilled from government specialists’ personal view and formal government visions, strategies, and plans for circular economy, resource recovery, and/or waste.
Table 1: Comparative analysis of key themes distilled from government specialists’ personal view and formal government visions, strategies, and plans for circular economy, resource recovery, and/or waste management (published documents) for Wales (W), Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland (S) and England (E). Green = included; orange = partly included; and red=not included in formal government documents.

Further recommendations for governmental organisations emerging from this research include:

  1. Progress should be measured in terms of technical, social and environmental values in addition to economic, and data collection adapted accordingly [delivered by new Office for Resource Stewardship or collective effort of e.g. BEIS, MHCLG, Defra, ONS; used by all government departments, especially the Treasury].
  2. Secondary resource markets should be supported through a mix of incentives and regulatory approaches [BEIS, Defra and devolved counterparts].
  3. Policy interventions should enable innovation, not only in waste processing technologies but also business models, product design, and methods of data collection and analysis [UKRI].
  4. A whole-system approach to analysis should be adopted (aided by academics) but, as government operates in departments,  this then needs to be translated into specific actions that can be steered through key intervention points [led by Cabinet and devolved counterparts, supported by new Office for Resource Stewardship].
  5. A long-term and predictable policy framework is required that focuses on resource efficiency in line with the decarbonisation agenda, building on the EU circular economy package [BEIS, Defra and devolved counterparts].
  6. Further action is needed to maintain the technical functional qualities of materials and thus their ability to contribute to industrial productivity i.e. as resources, not waste. This will require a change in investment profile away from energy-from-waste to resource recovery infrastructure [Infrastructure and Projects Authority, NIC].

Full details of this work are available in the open access article: Velenturf et al. (2018) Co-Producing a Vision and Approach for the Transition towards a Circular Economy: Perspectives from Government Partners. Sustainability, 10, 1401; doi: 10.3390/su10051401

The first paper in the series on the co-producing a vision for transition to a circular economy, which contains the academic perspective, is available at: Anne Velenturf and Phil Purnell (2017) Resource recovery from waste: Restoring the balance between resource scarcity and waste overload. Sustainability, 9 (9), 1603; doi:10.3390/su9091603 Open Access.

A final article in the series will be published in due course on the industrial perspective, incorporating results from a workshop and recent industry survey.

For further RRfW papers, please see our publications page.

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Resource Recovery from Waste programme to coordinate a Research Topic in Frontiers journal

The Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme is to coordinate a Research Topic in collaboration with the Gold Open Access scientific publishing platform Frontiers and its associated family of journals. We would like to encourage participation from across the research community to raise visibility and drive momentum in the resource recovery from waste area.

Low Carbon Infrastructure Decommissioning Workshop

A workshop on the decommissioning and resource recovery of low-carbon energy infrastructure was held in Leeds on 16th January 2018. It was co-organised by the University of Leeds, Resource Recovery from Waste and Innovate UK, and attracted participants from academia, business, government and catapult organisations.

Decommissioning of nuclear and North Sea oil infrastructure has left taxpayers facing a bill of £300 billion or more. To avoid repeating history, our low-carbon infrastructures must be designed for durability, decommissioning and resource recovery. Meeting this challenge will require the development of disruptive new science, technology and industry business models in a sector where there is a distinct global need and development opportunities, but little expertise.

The workshop examined challenges for industry and research, discussed current best practice and gauged the demand for new solutions in this area. The outcomes are being used to shape a research programme led by the University of Leeds (E4LCID) and help Innovate UK understand the potential for industry-led innovation funding in this area under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The workshop kicked-off with three presentations:

Discussions were held to gain a greater insight into the sector-specific challenges in offshore wind, onshore wind, solar PV, and electric vehicles; followed by a session to identify cross-sectoral challenges.

The workshop identified eight research issues as being central to all stakeholders’ perception of the problems facing decommissioning of low-carbon infrastructure, including:

  • The need for methods to value materials factoring in co-benefits such as environmental and resource security benefits.
  • Developing the infrastructure necessary to extend the functional lifetime of components, decommission and recover resources .
  • An inventory of the materials present in current low-carbon infrastructure is needed to accurately estimate volumes and timing of material in- and out-flows, thereby enabling business development.
  • A better understanding is needed of the durability of the high-tech materials used in low-carbon infrastructure.
  • A way to analyse the whole system is needed, in order to balance trade offs between economic, social, technical and environmental costs and benefits.
  • There is an opportunity to develop the skills and expertise to make the UK a leader in this area.
  • Regulation will be required to drive the right behaviour, clarify ownership of the issues on decommissioning and resource recovery, and reduce risks.
  • The transformative potential impact – positive and negative – of new business models needs to be investigated.

The full workshop report detailing the day and all the findings in more detail is available here: Workshop proceedings on decommissioning low-carbon infrastructures (pdf).

University of Leeds will continue to co-produce and develop the E4LCID programme on low-carbon decommissioning and resource recovery. If you are interested in contributing to this process, please get in touch with Anne Velenturf.

New EU project seeks lessons on how to manage the transformation to a Circular Economy

A new EU €3.8 million research project, led by Dr Pauline Deutz at the University of Hull, is to focus on critically assessing current circular economy activity and drawing out lessons that can be applied to managing the transformation to a full circular economy.

Establishing a circular economy – to maximise the use made of resources and minimise waste generation – is a major policy area within the UK, European Union and elsewhere. It is explicitly seen as increasing economic competitiveness and laying a foundation for environmental employment. As such, circular economy policies are designed to increase resource efficiency and decrease carbon dependency. Previous and ongoing research into the circular economy, however, has been largely concerned with strategies for implementation. The many different fields of activity involved (e.g., re-use, recovery, recycling, design for the environment amongst others) operate with varying degrees of effectiveness in different places and for different materials. So far, these fields of activity have not been critically analysed as an interrelated social, technical, environmental and geographical phenomenon.

The project ‘Circular Economy: Sustainability implications and guiding progress’, or CRESTING, will train 15 early stage researchers (PhD level) in cutting edge systematic analysis of the process of transformation to a circular economy. This programme will advance the critical analysis of the concept and sustainability implications of the circular economy through in-depth analyses of circular economy-related activity/initiatives in a range of geographic and economic settings, bringing them together within a carefully integrated framework. The project will then translate this critical assessment into lessons for managing the transformation to a circular economy.

CRESTING has academic partners from across the EU, and industry, government and NGO partners including the City of Hull, WRAP and Environmental & Management Solutions (EMS) Ltd in the UK. It also includes Nanjing University, China and Ibadan University, Nigeria.

Dr Pauline Deutz, who leads the CRESTING project, is a team member of the RRfW project R3AW where she has applied her interest in the political economy of waste to R3AW’s multidisciplinary setting. The CRESTING project now extends the University of Hull’s ongoing work on industrial ecology and circular economy into a further interdisciplinary social science setting.

The CRESTING project is currently recruiting 15 early stage researchers between the eight universities, with a deadline for applications on 28th March this year. To comply with the funding requirements, researchers must not have spent more than 12 months in the last three years in the country where they are to be hired.

For further information on the project, including how to apply as an early stage researcher, please visit the CRESTING website, and follow them on twitter at @crestingITN.

Is the UK’s waste infrastructure ready for a circular economy?

Are we ready for a circular economy? The debate rumbles on as to whether we need to build more energy-from-waste facilities, the Chinese import ban on plastic recycling looks set to cause headaches in 2018, and Brexit raises both opportunities and issues for resource and waste management in the UK.

Addressing some of these issues is a new open-access article by RRfW convener Prof Phil Purnell in the journal Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, which asks whether our current and planned waste and resource recovery infrastructure will be able to deliver the goal of a circular economy. The review starkly concludes that it isn’t ready and neither is it likely to be without radical interventions.

The ideal of a circular economy has caught the attention of governments and industry [1] over recent years for good reasons. It promotes resource productivity and reduces our reliance on imports, it has the potential to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions and help build a more sustainable future. However, the British waste management sector retains much of its 19th Century focus on public health and 20th Century environmental protection concerns. Our legacy infrastructure and associated regulation is struggling to adapt to a new resource productivity paradigm.

Our current regulation, directly or indirectly, retains two deficiencies that are impeding progress towards a circular economy:

  1. A lack of data, because those creating waste are only charged with collecting data in relation to hazardous materials or specific (EU) laws, regulations and directives; and
  2. A lack of public investment, because in many cases, the narrow targets under this legislation have been ‘met’ so no further investment need is perceived.

In terms of data, the main problem is not a shortage per se, but that little of it is mutually compatible. The data collected and procedures they help to enforce were not designed to promote a circular economy but rather to meet specific EU reporting targets that prioritise public and environmental health. This is reflected in the piecemeal quality of the data, in which double counting is inevitable. Without reliable data on mass flows (and their consequent value or potential to provide stable income streams) it’s not possible to reliably predict if there will be a gap between capacity and requirements, which impedes both investment and strategic decision-making.

Veolia_EfW_640px-Leeds_RERF_4_August_2017-Wikimedia
Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility in Leeds (Veolia UK). The facility is designed to remove recyclable waste from black bins and recover energy from what is left over. It will significantly reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill. Image by Chemical Engineer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
This limited strategic decision-making is reflected by a lack of diversity in UK waste infrastructure investment. Of the solid waste projects highlighted in the National Infrastructure Plan, 80% are Energy from Waste plants. However, this over-reliance on Energy from Waste creates an infrastructure that paradoxically relies on the continued creation of suitable waste, reducing incentives for reuse and recycling. In addition, burning waste for energy destroys technical value and removes materials from the supply chain, rendering the residues only suitable for low value applications and disposal. For a truly circular economy, this should be a last resort and not the dominant technology. Conversely, options further up the waste hierarchy such as reduction, repair and reuse – which offer much more in way of ‘bang for buck’ for reducing waste volumes – are currently under-promoted. Driving a change from waste treatment to waste prevention will require a spread of responsibility for end-of-life resources from the waste management industry to include the entire supply chain from designers, manufacturers, retailers, users and material reprocessors.

In order to ‘close the loop’ and move from the current focus on waste treatment to the desired high-value circular economy, the review argues that political leadership and public investment will be needed. The review suggests that this should be achieved through the radical change of moving responsibility for waste management regulation away from the environment agencies to a new Office for Resource Stewardship. This body should have the specific focus of protecting national interests by enforcing efficient use of materials, preventing waste and encouraging reuse and recycling. The review concludes that as the UK embarks on a new industrial strategy and world trade relations, this is the ideal time to reimagine the resource recovery industry as an engine for sustainable growth at home and a crucible from which we export the science, technology and services required for a global circular economy. In order to ‘close the loop’ and move from the current focus on waste treatment to the desired high-value circular economy, the review argues that political leadership and public investment will be needed. The review suggests that this should be achieved through the radical change of moving responsibility for waste management regulation away from the environment agencies to a new Office for Resource Stewardship. This body should have the specific focus of protecting national interests by enforcing efficient use of materials, preventing waste and encouraging reuse and recycling. The review concludes that as the UK embarks on a new industrial strategy and world trade relations, this is the ideal time to reimagine the resource recovery industry as an engine for sustainable growth at home and a crucible from which we export the science, technology and services required for a global circular economy.

The full paper on which this article is based can be found here:Phil Purnell (2017): On a voyage of recovery: a review of the UK’s resource recovery from waste infrastructure. Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1405654 Open Access. Published online: 08 Dec 2017

The key messages from the paper are also summarised in a presentation given by Prof Purnell at the Resource Recovery from Waste Conference 2017, which is available for download from the conference webpage.

[1]: The following references give some insight into government and industry thinking in this area, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list…

  • National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016-2020, page 64 – ‘an ambition to move towards a ‘circular economy’ where material resources are valued and kept in circulation’. Report pdf.
  • Industrial Strategy White Paper (2017), page 148 – ‘we are committed to moving towards a more circular economy’. Report pdf.
  • ‘From waste to resource productivity’ report (2017) of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, page 6 –  ‘review [ ] innovative circular economy practice throughout the economy’. Report pdf.
  • HS2 circular economy principles, page 2. HS2’s vision is to be ‘a catalyst for growth and we believe that adoption of circular economy principles can play a key role in delivering this’. Report pdf.
  • Apple UK. ‘Our goal is a closed-loop supply chain’. Apple resources webpage.
  • IKEA: Towards zero waste ‘We have decided to eliminate waste from all our operations and to be energy independent by 2020’. IKEA waste webpage.

Working towards a shared vision for waste and resource management (3): Key changes and pivot points

The Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme coordinates a co-creation process for a shared vision and approach for sustainable waste and resource management in the UK.

Previously we introduced the co-creation methods and discussed results on effective collaboration between government and academic partners and policy and regulatory approaches. This week we present RRfW governmental partners’ key ideas and approach for our future waste and resource management landscape.

From end-of-pipe waste treatment to strategies that maximise resource values

We need to move away from ‘end-of-pipe’ approaches for waste treatment. Such approaches only deal with waste issues once they have emerged. Moreover, they often focus on cost savings rather than creating value.

Instead, we need to adopt more proactive strategies to design whole systems for resource management. Such strategies consider how resources are transformed throughout life cycles of products. In this way, end-of-life options such as reuse, dismantling and/or recycling of products can be designed into the life cycles. Such strategies maximise the values created from resources, whilst keeping them within our economy for as long as possible.

Pivot points in the transition towards a circular economy

While consensus on the transition from end-of-pipe approaches for waste treatment to strategies that maximise resource values was easily reached in the RRfW co-creation process, perceptions regarding the approaches to realise such radical change varied. The figure below provides an overview of the main changes and key themes discussed by government partners.

SharedVision3_1

Four pivot points were identified for the transition towards more sustainable waste and resource management:

1. Integrate environmental and social value with economic progress

The current economic growth model needs to change to include environmental and social measures of progress. This requires a fundamental change in economic theory and practice. Metrics for environmental and social value need to be developed and integrated with economic metrics. Such approach would support decoupling of consumption rates from economic growth as well as resource use from waste production.

2. Support secondary resource markets

Secondary resource markets are essential for realising a circular economy. However, the ways in which secondary resource markets should be supported revealed clear differences between government partners; ranging from banning products that are difficult to recycle on the one hand, and product standards and internalising environmental and social externalities into the monetary resource value on the other hand (also see blog 2/3 in this series). Similarly, the perceived necessity for secondary resource markets and recycling infrastructure varied; while some think that demand for product consumption will decrease, others anticipate such patterns will persist as usual and hence more investment in recycling infrastructure and markets is required.

3. Promote innovation and enabling technologies

Building on the different perceptions whether consumption patterns will change, innovation in business models and recycling technology are necessary. Digitisation could support recycling processes, enabling improved monitoring and data management. A third area of innovation covers material and product design, to include end-of-life options and, consequently, enable higher recycling rates.

4. Understand the whole system to identify key intervention points

Through an understanding of the whole system, a number of key intervention points were suggested:

  • Focus on the top of the waste hierarchy i.e. waste prevention, minimisation and reuse.
  • Connect waste and resource management, and associated waste infrastructure, to the decarbonisation agenda.
  • Model complete life cycles of resources and products, identifying hotspots of risks and impacts along the value chain where regulatory efforts could be targeted.

We value your feedback!

The preliminary results discussed above will be included in a publication. We would value additional input from further governmental organisations and other interested stakeholders. Please leave a comment or contact us directly.

NB Should you wish to use the presented results above, please reference as: Anne P.M. Velenturf et al. (Forthcoming) Co-producing a Vision and Approach for the Transition towards a Circular Economy: Perspectives from Government Partners.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 15th February 2017

Featured image by Lynn Tucker (design) and Astrid Erasmuson (graphic art) – The New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research