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.
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.
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  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:
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
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.
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 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.
: 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.
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.
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.