Representation of a Circular Economy

Solving the paradox of resource scarcity and waste overload

The world is currently suffering from the double whammy of limited resources being over exploited, whilst at the same time an estimated 22 billion tonnes of waste is generated every year – roughly 4 tonnes per person.  This paradox could in part be solved by moving 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 a new open-access article recently published in the Sustainability journal, RRfW Coordinator Anne Velenturf and leading academic Phil Purnell from the University of Leeds set out how the Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme is addressing this problem. They argue that academia is well placed to contribute to the advances in science, technology and economic models needed for a truly circular economy. However, in order for research to effectively contribute to the required paradigm shift it must first engage with interested groups at all levels through a process of participatory action research.

Waste and resource management will be key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Out of 17 goals, 12 directly contain targets to improve waste and resource managements. The various targets proposed will require far-reaching changes for both industry and society. However, these changes will be necessary in order to stay within the planetary boundaries. The paper identifies nine planetary boundaries, which give the ‘safe operating space’ for humanity. Of these, four boundaries have already been crossed – for climate change, excess crop fertilisers, loss of biodiversity and land use. The ways in which resources are extracted, produced, used and wasted are all contributing to the rate at which we are crossing these planetary boundaries. Transforming waste and resource management must play a key part in changing these self-destructive pathways.

The current way of thinking about waste and resource flows is linear, with resources being extracted or grown, processed into products, consumed and then wasted. In contrast, the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme defines a circular economy approach as one that would:

“keep resources in use as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life”

Moving to a circular economy would have multiple benefits, for example, reducing demand for extracting new resources would also reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. But to increase circularity, the focus needs to move from just ‘end-of-pipe’ treatments to include changes at the product design and manufacturing stages. Products must be brought to market that are more amenable to being reused, dismantled and / or recycled. In addition, all stages of the supply chains need to be redesigned to prevent the technical, environmental, social and economic value of materials from leaking into waste at any point of the product life cycle. In order to deliver such a shift in thinking, we need to engage people at all levels from designers, manufacturers, consumers, waste processers to politicians, regulators and NGOs who can support markets and drive changes in behaviour.

One approach to engage multiple groups of people at across multiple areas is to use participatory governance. This involves an engagement process that can range from informing, to listening, consulting, co-producing, co-deciding and full autonomy. There are many advantages to this approach, including bringing a diversity of viewpoints and expertise to identify and solve particular problems, and generating greater commitment and impact. The academic community can adapt these techniques through participatory action research, with the aim of both bringing about societal change and contributing to scientific progress. This approach has been adopted on the RRfW programme and the paper outlines our strategy for this. By engaging with people and organisations from across the resource and waste area, we have been able to get our research to where it is needed and, in the process, identify and tackle new needs. As this approach runs through the core of the programme, it is still on-going. This autumn will see a further four participatory knowledge exchange workshops and our annual meeting for 2017 will open the debate as to how we can make the business case for resource recovery.

The full paper on which this article is based can be found here:

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.

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Circular Economy Driving International Sustainable Development Research

By Anne Velenturf, Pauline Deutz and Andrea Cecchin

The International Sustainable Development Research Society (ISDRS) held a very successful annual conference last week in Bogotá, Colombia. With over 200 presentations from every corner of the world and 9 key notes plus a welcome by the President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Juan Manuel Santos, the conference reflected the diversity and crucial role of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for environmental health, peace keeping and the circular economy.

The circular economy continues to be a popular topic for ISDRS. A special track on Circular Economy, Industrial Ecology (resource management and sustainable regional economic development) included 12 presentations on this subject. Additionally, other sessions contained 5 presentations on circular economy while there were a further 15 talks on waste and resource management and/or sustainable production and consumption.

The fact that the circular economy and sustainable waste and resource management resonated throughout the ISDRS conference should not be a surprise. Analysis of the UN SDGs show that 12 of the 17 goals contain targets to improve waste and resource management directly, excluding targets on for example education, policy and finance which can indirectly enhance sustainable waste and resource management. The global goals on affordable and clean energy, clean water and sanitation, and life below water and on land contain the highest proportions of targets aiming to alter waste and resource flows in our economy. Overall the UN SDGs propose far-reaching changes for industry.

Image source: Anne Velenturf et al. (2017) Co-producing a Vision and Approach for the Transition towards a Circular Economy: Perspectives from Government Partners. Presentation at ISDRS 14-16 June Bogotá, Colombia.

This emphasises the importance of circular economy and industrial ecology for sustainable development. Presentations at the ISDRS conference indicated, however, that circularity cannot be a dogma because it might not be the best strategy for achieving resource efficiency or sustainability at all times. Instead, we need to consider circular economy in the broader perspective of sustainable development.

Circular economy presentations at the ISDRS included both developing and developed country perspectives. In both cases the construction industry is an area of concern, given the scale of waste produced, but especially noting the continuing rate of urbanisation in developing countries such as Colombia. Additionally, in the context of developing countries the informal economy tends to play a significant role (both in waste management and construction).

Other talks indicated that there is a need to develop approaches fostering circular practices, such as industrial symbiosis, which reach beyond large companies. Context needs to be considered in industrial symbiosis evolution, with different pathways illustrated for urban and rural settings. Pathways are also likely to differ in developed and developing countries due to different socioeconomic and political conditions.

Such differences highlight the need for a flexible framework and specific implementation strategies for developed and developing countries. A common framework for circular economy does not exist yet, not least since various current frameworks propose different visions of sustainability. These differences are also reflected in the confusing range of terms used in circular economy discourse, as precise terminology is yet to be established.

Image source: Denise Reike, Walter Vermeulen and Sjors Witjes (2017) The circular economy: New or Refurbished as CE 3.0? – Exploring Controversies in the Conceptualisation of the Circular Economy through a Focus on History and Resource Retention Options. Presentation at ISDRS 14-16 June Bogotá, Colombia.

Engagement with policy makers is also important to steer both the design and implementation of regulations, as was illustrated by case studies from tyre recycling and mining of legacy waste. A further presentation emphasised policy makers can be receptive to academic engagement, with an on-going two-way process of exchange the ideal way to manage this.

A lively discussion after the talks summarised suggestions for further circular economy and industrial ecology research:

  • Social aspects related to circular economy
  • Circular business models and business model innovation
  • The role of participatory approaches as an essential part of implementing circular economies
  • The socio-political implications and possibilities of shifting current production-consumption-use-waste practices
  • The role of economic cycles in the adoption of a circular economy framework in national economies and industries
  • Further research the role of geographic proximity in the establishment of industrial symbiosis
  • Investigate the influence of geographical context on resource exchange networks
  • Investigate the role and contribution of private brokers and governmental facilitators to foster industrial symbiosis
  • Research to integrate urban symbiosis with industrial symbiosis
  • Investigate the adoption of circular economy models for the construction sector, especially in developing countries with higher population growth in urban areas
  • The role and contribution of the informal economy when designing and implementing a circular economy framework in developing countries
  • The role of formal and informal institutions (for example regulation and the presence of collaborative culture respectively), also in relation to the implementation of law enforcement
  • Adoption of circular practices by SMEs

We look forward to contributions to continue the debate at next year’s ISDRS conference, which will be hosted by the University of Messina, Italy, 13-15 June 2018.

Anne Velenturf is the coordinator of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme at the University of Leeds and managing director of 4Innovation Research and Consultancy. Pauline Deutz is a Reader at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Hull and vice president of the International Sustainable Development Research Society. Andrea Cecchin is a Fellow at the Archives of Sustainability at Ca’Foscari University of Venice and Project Researcher at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 22nd June 2017

Towards a shared vision for waste and resource management (2): Policy and regulatory approaches

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.

Last week we introduced the co-creation methods and results on effective collaboration between government and academic partners. This week we discuss preliminary results on policy and regulatory approaches in support of the transition towards more sustainable waste and resource management. How can government support a move away from end-of-pipe approaches and maximise the value created from resources whilst keeping them in the economy for as long as possible?

We are looking for further input from governmental partners and other interested stakeholders. Are the presented approaches sufficient to support the transition process? Are any policy and regulatory approaches missing? Do you have a preference for any of the presented approaches? Please leave a comment or contact us directly.

Policy recommendations

Policy efforts should focus on eradicating waste. Engagement of government partners has highlighted five focal areas for policy development so far:

  • Longer-term policies that are stable and predictable, enabling investment and business model innovation.
  • Focus policies on resources and resource efficiency rather than waste and waste reduction.
  • Build on the EU Circular Economy Strategy to maintain integrity with EU resource, waste and circular economy policies.
  • Prioritise reduction of single use and superfluous products/packaging as well as the use of hazardous materials in products when it poses barriers to recycling.
  • Develop waste infrastructure in support of decarbonisation agenda.
    Regulatory approaches

Turning to regulatory approaches, a combination of incentives and regulations were suggested to focus efforts on the higher levels of the waste hierarchy.

The overriding idea is that each level of the waste hierarchy needs its own mix of incentives and regulations, with more ‘carrot’ or ‘save as you recycle’ approaches towards the higher levels and more use of regulatory ‘sticks’ or taxation to prevent resources moving down the hierarchy (see figure above).

Regulatory instruments

Six groups of regulatory instruments were discussed:

  1. Taxation and tax breaks, for example to support reuse and repair, and to internalise elements of resource value that are currently largely externalised from the costs of materials, components and products, such as the environmental impacts of extracting natural resources or the end-of-life impacts when products become waste.
  2. Reporting to identify and understand resource flows, especially at higher levels of the waste hierarchy such as reuse. Reporting could be incentivised by tax breaks.
  3. Extended producer and consumer responsibility – Extended producer responsibility (EPR) could target specific waste/ resource streams, supporting schemes to make polluters pay and motivate designing wastes out of the system. EPR should be combined with more consumer responsibility, to improve the quality of waste resources feeding into the waste and reprocessing industry.
  4. Product bans or product standards – Product bans would be a strong instrument to intervene. However, such bans may be contentious and the alternative would be products standards and inclusion of environmental and social externalities in economic value.
  5. Mandatory recycling regimes – In support of extended producer and consumer responsibility, markets could be further directed by mandating recycling regimes. Such mandates would improve the quality of recycled resources, essential to realising the circular economy.
  6. Waste Prevention Act – Waste and resource management can play an important role in carbon reductions. Especially waste prevention could contribute to such extent that it should not be just voluntary and, instead, should be embedded in a Waste Prevention Act.
Regulatory instruments reviewed.

Reconsidering existing policies and regulations

When introducing the regulatory approaches above, reconsideration of the existing policy and regulatory framework is also necessary:

  • Adjust regulation to support the closing of resource loops. The regulatory system should become less centred on waste and focus more on valuing resources.
  • Realign support for competing incentivised supply chains, to ward off perverse incentives that for example prioritise energy recovery over waste prevention.
  • Focus regulatory efforts more on those who can actually (pay for) change in waste and resource management. For example, local councils carry responsibility for recycling but austerity measures cause difficulty to achieve obligations.

Finally, education and support play an important role in enabling change in waste and resource management practices. For example, the LGA is well positioned to provide information to local councils about circular economy and best practice, supporting them in realising waste infrastructure and cultural change. Moreover, government actors in power to lead on waste and resource management, as well as businesses, would benefit from understanding the circular economy and the opportunities it offers. Academia should play a key role in providing consistent, credible and impartial education materials on all areas of waste and resource management.

We value your feedback!

The preliminary results introduced above will be included in a publication, which will be finalised from the middle of February. Please share your views before 17. February 2017 to be included in the article.

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 3rd February 2017.

Building an Industrial Strategy for a Stronger Waste and Resource Management Sector

The Government launched its green paper ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ and invited participation in the on-going consultation. The green paper sets out a positive vision for Britain with a strong focus on economic growth. Prime Minister Theresa May states that “Through this new approach we will move beyond short-term thinking to focus on the big decisions that will deliver long-term, sustainable success – and we will seize the opportunities of Brexit to build a brighter future for all.” Such opportunities may involve radical changes in our economy, as indicated by Secretary of State for BEIS Greg Clark “A modern British industrial strategy must make this country a fertile ground for new businesses and new industries which will challenge and in some cases displace the companies and industries of today.” Resource Recovery from Waste reflects upon the opportunities for waste and resource management as the backbone of a healthy, resilient economy bringing well-being for everyone.

The issues around increasing resource scarcity, waste and pollution are well-known and recognised by relevant actors in government and industry who can deliver change. What is perhaps less well-known is the sustained growth of the waste management industry in the UK. Green Alliance and WRAP’s report Employment and the circular economy: job creation in a more resource efficient Britain noted that sales in the waste and recycling sector had tripled between 2000 and 2010 to more than £19bn. Defra’s report Resource management: a catalyst for growth and productivity estimated that the core waste sector had a value of £6.8bn GVA supporting 103,000 jobs in 2013, and this number could be roughly 6 times higher when including economic activities to repair and reuse products, material and components.

Consistent growth opportunities are reported for the waste and resource management sector at the forefront of the circular economy, see for example publications by ESA and CIWM et al. However, the British government should do more to support investment in the waste management industry. “Brexit” has created an uneasy mix of potential opportunities and problems in this regard – as discussed at the Brexit policy series Redesigning Waste and Resource Policy outside the EU. On the one hand, free from state aid rules the UK government could become leaders in green procurement. By prioritising the purchase of British recycled, recovered or reused products, it could help stimulate the secure supply and value chains required for the circular economy as well as providing the basis for development of the underlying infrastructure and jobs. On the other hand, uncertainty regarding the continued adherence or otherwise to the extensive suite of EU legislation surrounding waste management and recycling will stifle investment in the sector; the Government should prioritise creating a predictable UK policy framework that will reduce the risk of investing in waste infrastructure. Establishing a Resource Directorate, that refocuses the waste management sector on recovering valuable materials to protect UK supply chains, rather than regulating the sector via environmental agencies, would be a key first step towards addressing both issues. Its’ top priority would be to consolidate and standardise data collection in the sector in order to properly track material flows from cradle to ‘grave’, to give confidence to investors, operators, manufacturers and materials suppliers alike that the materials loops can be closed profitably, and that resources of sufficient quantity and quality will be available.

Such government actions needs to be accompanied by a step-change in industrial practice. The waste industry is moving forward to become the custodians of resources rather than the collectors of rubbish. At the recent Westminster Energy, Environment Transport Forum on The future for waste and recycling policy in the UK, Herman van der Meij from Viridor made it clear that the waste management industry wants to work with designers and manufacturers of products, materials and components to include end-of-life options with economic, environmental and social benefits. Such progress needs to come from both sides though, and design and manufacturing industries could do more to proactively collaborate with waste managers as part of their extended producer responsibility. Connecting waste management to relevant sectors such as manufacturing offers a key intervention point where the government could support the transition towards the circular economy, whilst also strengthening resource security for the long-term. Once again, the standardisation of data collection for material use, wastage and recycling would remove the most pernicious barrier to achieving this.

Despite the waste industry’s growth record and evident opportunities to play a key role in a sustainable circular economy in the UK, its presence in the green paper is rather minimal. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to read that “The Government will work with stakeholders to explore opportunities to reduce raw material demand and waste in our energy and resource systems, and to promote well-functioning markets for secondary materials, and new disruptive business models that challenge inefficient practice.” Resource Recovery from Waste brings together such expertise and we look forward to translate our knowledge into tangible recommendations for the industrial strategy.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 24th January 2017.

Towards a shared vision for waste and resource management (1): Effective government – academic collaboration

The Resource Recovery from Waste (RRfW) programme coordinates a co-creation process to formulate a shared vision and approach to realise it for sustainable waste and resource management in the UK. In this way we contribute to the necessary transition towards a circular economy that is mindful of environmental and social boundaries.

This blog is the first of a series of three posts presenting preliminary results from our government engagement, inviting your further insights to take on board before publishing the final outcomes.

Overview RRfW co-creation process

The co-creation process consists of four steps (please see figure on the right). The first step has been completed. To gather insights from government, we interviewed RRfW partners in Defra, Zero Waste Scotland, BEIS, EA, and SEPA prior to a round table discussion with all participants. Conversations revolved around four questions:

  1. For which organisation(s) are you working & what is your role in waste and resource management?
  2. What would the resource and waste management landscape ideally look like by 2020, 2030 and 2050?
  3. If we would like waste management to be driven by environmental and social benefits in addition to economic benefits, what would be the key policy and regulatory approaches?
  4. How could RRfW best engage governmental organisations to translate knowledge into practice?

 

Results from government engagement will be submitted for publication in spring. Before finalising the article, we would like to invite further insights from government. In the next weeks we will present preliminary results in this blogpost series; We would appreciate if you could have a read and please let us know if we missed anything important. This week we discuss how RRfW could best engage governmental organisations to translate our technologies and approaches into practice.

Effective collaboration between government and academia

In what ways could RRfW academics best collaborate with government partners? Preliminary results covered recommendations from governmental partners for academics on potential engagement methods, organisations, government processes, and positioning and generation of research outcomes.

In what ways should academics engage government partners?

  • Engage governmental organisation from the start and follow-up regularly throughout the research project.
  • Communicate with partners at multiple government levels, which is crucial in the transition towards more sustainable waste and resource management. Radical changes are needed at all levels of government, and throughout society, hence to bring about such systemic change “taking everyone with us” is important.

Who should participate in academic research on resource recovery from waste?

  • Politicians such as MPs
  • Technical officers and policy makers in DEFRA, BEIS, Treasury and DCLG
  • Parliamentary groups and committees such as APSRG and the Environmental Audit Committee

Through which processes should academics engage government partners?

Aside from regular meetings with key contacts in the organisations mentioned above, academics can engage through the following processes:

  • Contribute to consultations such as for the industrial strategy, bioeconomy strategy and approaches to support the circular economy
  • Become member of relevant parliamentary groups and committees
  • Contribute to standards such as BREFs and the recycling protocol for demolition and construction waste
  • Make results more accessible through POST notes, the Raw Materials Information System, and existing or newly launched online databases for waste and resource management
  • Organise events in Westminster to engage politicians and other government actors

How should research outcomes be best positioned for government uptake?

Two, interlinked, approaches to position research outcomes were brought forward:

  1. Academia can play a key role in maintaining the bigger picture of whole systems. However, targeted interventions are required and academia should formulate practical recommendations for specific sectors or materials. In other words, academics should present whole system approaches but with more practical recommendations.
  2. Another key approach in presenting research outcomes revolves around integration. Building on the observation above that actors throughout society need to change, at all levels of government as well as industry and general public; academic work should integrate the diverse stakeholder perspectives, including:
  • Practical advice to support an integrated cross-government approach for waste and resource management
  • Integrate strategies for the circular economy with the wider agenda for economic development and protection of the environment
  • Recommend new metrics to integrate into economic development models, for example circular economy metrics or sets of metrics that include environmental and social indicators of progress in addition to economic metrics.
  • Join up the elements of the circular economy. While government interventions tend to focus on sectors and materials, academia should clarify how resources can circulate through the economy through interconnected sectors. In other words, academics should identify where joined up interventions for two or more sectors are necessary to support the emerging circular economy.

Which research activities should RRfW prioritise to support collaboration with government?

  • Identify policies and regulations linked to each RRfW research project
  • Carry out a situational analysis to understand if, and in what way, new approaches and technologies could be realised within the policy and regulatory context
  • Connect solutions and recommendations explicitly to policies and regulations in a specific region

We value your feedback!

Did we miss anything important in the outlined preliminary results? Are there any other and/or better ways for academics to collaborate effectively with government partners in this subject area? Please leave a comment or contact us.

We will finalise and submit the results for publication from the middle of February. Please share your views before 17. February 2017 to be included in the article – we will acknowledge all relevant contributions.

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 23rd January 2017.

Bioelectrochemical Systems for Resource Recovery from Wastewater

By Edward Milner and Ana Suarez-Suarez

Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Edward Milner, working on the NERC-funded MeteoRR project, visited the world leading research group of Professor Korneel Rabaey at the Center for Microbial Ecology and Technology at the University of Gent in Belgium. Edward has been working on the use of bioelectrochemical systems (BES) to recover metals from wastewaters. He was fortunate to learn first-hand from Professor Rabaey and his group about their exciting new research in this area and practical details for setting up novel BES related to his work on the MeteoRR project.

Bioelectrochemical systems (BES) explained

BES technology can be used for resource recovery from wastewater. They can simultaneously remove organic contaminants and produce electricity, valuable chemicals or recover metals. Additionally, BES are being adapted with the potential to convert the greenhouse gas CO2 to valuable organic feedstock chemicals.

In BES, wastewater containing organic chemicals is fed into an anode chamber where the organics are broken down by specialised bacteria into CO2, protons and electrons. In the process, the electrons are released into the anode electrode where they move through an external circuit to the cathode electrode. In a microbial fuel cell, these electrons combine with oxygen at the cathode, and electricity is generated through the movement of electrons in the external circuit. Alternatively, the electrons can be combined with protons at the cathode to produce hydrogen in a microbial electrolysis cell, metal ions to recover pure metals, or CO2 to produce valuable organic feedstock chemicals such as formate or methanol.

In a microbial fuel cell, the system produces electricity whilst in a microbial electrolysis cell. The system produces hydrogen but requires a small amount of additional electrical energy provided by an external electrical power supply. Similarly, additional electrical energy is required for CO2 conversion to valuable organic feedstock chemicals. For metal recovery the required additional electrical energy depends on the metal being processed. The different cathode reactions in BES may require chemical or biological catalysts at the cathode to make them work.

The diagram explains the operation of BES for electricity generation (A), hydrogen recovery (B), metal recovery (C), and CO2 conversion to valuable organic feedstock chemicals (D). Wastes are highlighted in red and resources in green.

Environmental and economic benefits of BES

Newcastle University leads two major research projects focused on BES: The MeteoRR project led by Professors Ian Head and Tom Curtis in the school of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, and the LifesCO2R project led by Dr Eileen Yu and Professor Keith Scott in the school of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials.

The projects develop BES for the recovery of pure metals or valuable chemicals with market value from wastewater containing organic, metal and CO2 pollutants. This offers economic incentives for industry to adopt clean technologies as part of the circular economy.

BES technology can treat wastewaters by removing organic and metal pollutants which are harmful to living organisms, including people, in the environment. Untreated wastewater containing organics promotes microbial pathogens in the environment which can cause disease in people, whilst wastewater containing heavy metals can be toxic to human health. These wastewaters can cause adverse effects on fragile ecosystems. Additionally, using BES to remove CO2 and recover valuable organic feedstock chemicals has the additional environmental benefit of helping to combat global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more about BES technology and the environmental and economic benefits in MeteoRR’s articles and reports.

MeteoRR is a NERC-funded project within the Resource Recovery from Waste programme. The project has teams at the universities of Newcastle, Manchester, Surrey and South Wales, and formal collaborations with researchers at Glasgow, Penn State, Ghent and Harbin. The teams work closely with industrial partners who will benefit from the research findings.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 9th January 2017.