New special issue invites radical views to spark a sustainable circular economy

Not all circular practices that are implemented turn out to be sustainable. This special invites contributions from authors from public, private, civil and academic backgrounds to answer the question: What is a sustainable circular economy?

Cinnamon colored black bear standing on hind legs waving

The Resource Recovery from Waste road trip

The day is 9 May 2016. The place is the University of Leeds. I am starting a job managing the sizeable Resource Recovery from Waste programme. As a relative rookie to academia, I am amazed at the opportunity; I am full of ideas, excited to get started and jump right in. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Resource Recovery from Waste created an amazing diversity of research projects. It brings together mavericks sitting at the edges of various research council remits. Network theory claims that ideas persist at the heart of a network; change is driven from the fringes. Uniting voices from far corners into a harmonious concert that can reach a wider audience is not an easy task though.

Our programme has a brilliant, lovely, yet rebellious coordination team bringing together the PIs and coordinators of our six main projects. We organise a ‘jam’ and the band start to patch together a shared vision and mission. And while Phil drums the Resource Recovery from Waste mantra, I set up the rest of the stage. First a decorum of ecosystem stewardship, planetary boundaries and human rights. Then the voices, a cacophony of metal recovery, organic wastes, wastewaters, land remediation and catalysts made from recovered materials topped with a complex story about multi-dimensional values. We write and rewrite our first song at least four times, but at last it gets launched and includes our engagement strategy to involve existing and new partners in governmental bodies and companies to deliver change.

In the meantime I am on a continuous promotional road trip, meeting our audience far and wide. A memorable first annual conference bringing together the full band and our audience. Then our first policy gig playing our song to those in power. A series of seemingly endless meetings, conferences, presentations, workshops and network gatherings goes on and on… I develop an intricate knowledge of the British rail system, taking in the weekly ‘Top Ten’ of cancellation excuses; find standard hangout spots in every corner of the country; and the side effects of generous catering policies settle on my waistline – after all, food waste cannot be accepted under any circumstances!

Through all the conversations a clear picture of the circular economy aspirations within our network emerges. I am humbled and grateful for the collaborations with and within Resource Recovery from Waste. Somewhere in this work-jumble, a series of cross-programme mini-projects come to fruition and spur on our momentum to deliver change. The funders notice our impact and the Resource Recovery from Waste concert is signed to perform an encore performance.

We professionalise our communications. We redraw our objectives. The pathways to achieve our outcomes become clearer. And while our projects start to wind down, the coordination team grows with Juliet doing magic with our digital looks and events, and Rachel joining later as a policy impact fellow – she knows how to strike a chord with our policy contacts! Researchers from across our projects are collaborating freely and without needing a programme coordinator chasing them anymore; Ana, Alfonso and Lynne our champion conductors here.

A colourful, weird and wonderful Resource Recovery from Waste family has grown. The impact machine hums in top gear and I start to feel sleepy. I open a window to let in a breeze of fresh air and it whispers about a new gig in Penryn. I decide to take a look. I like it – a lot. Helping companies to make their business models more circular and in tune with the environment. I am sad to leave Resource Recovery from Waste but, let’s face it, my job is done. I accept the position as industrial impact fellow on the Environmental Growth for Business project at the University of Exeter and move by 9 July. I leave the programme coordination and impact delivery in the safe hands of Juliet, Rachel and band leader, Phil.

Thank you for all your support, ideas, collaboration and hard work. It has been an amazing, mad and at times hilarious roller coaster of a couple of years and I am grateful that you let me write and play the Resource Recovery from Waste messages with you! Keep up the good work, build toward that crescendo and your finale. I am sure you will recognise the groupie with the pocket full of used rail tickets and the bag of doughnuts in the front row!

Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport forum: British infrastructure not ready for circular economy

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme has a vision of a high value circular economy that delivers clean growth, a better environment and social benefits such as skills and jobs. We work closely with our partners in government and business to turn this vision into action.

A high value circular economy should retain the economic, environmental and social value of materials by preserving their technical qualities rather than losing them in combustion. To achieve this, we need to have the right infrastructure in place. The Resource Recovery from Waste review of existing and planned waste and recovery infrastructure in the UK found that it is certainly not ready to support the circular economy, and neither is it likely to be without radical government intervention.

At the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport forum “Priorities for UK waste and recycling policy and developing the circular economy” on 18 January 2018, Lee Davies (Defra) argued that better data is needed to underpin a circular, resource efficient network; however, Andy Rees (Welsh Government) described how collection of such data remains a challenge. Better data on the flows, volumes and qualities of recycled materials is needed to support secondary resource markets. This will reduce risk and enable confident investment in infrastructure. It also enables risk sharing throughout the supply chain. This is crucial because as Marcus Gover (WRAP) explained, we need to consider production, consumption and recycling holistically. Promoting circular supply chains requires data on material flows in production and consumption, as well as downstream processing. It also means adopting new metrics that describe the technical qualities of material flows, not just their tonnage.

Policy and regulation in support of resource productivity are expected to change, as highlighted by Ian Boyd (Defra) and Libby Peake (Green Alliance) at the recent Resource Recovery from Waste conference. The development of coherent government initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy, Clean Growth Plan, 25 Year Environment Plan, and forthcoming Resource and Waste Strategy helps clarify the direction of travel, as expressed at the forum by Nadeem Arshad (Bevan Brittan). The repeated ambition for a circular, low-carbon economy expressed in these is positive. Now the Government needs to translate the plans into actions. It must provide detail in the National Infrastructure Plan of how the necessary reuse, recycling and recovery infrastructure to support a circular economy will be put in place. This is particularly important for the critical materials required by the technology that will enable a low-carbon economy, of which we are 100% importers. While future innovation will be needed, as Lee Davies stated in his response to this note, immediate action should be taken to balance investment into circular economy infrastructure. Currently, 80% of funded waste infrastructure projects are for energy recovery; part of the budget must be redirected towards infrastructure that supports e.g. repair, remanufacturing, recycling and recovery.

Resource Recovery from Waste has been awarded with a NERC Policy Impact grant to increase collaboration with government. Read more about this new project in our latest newsletter, and get in touch for further details and explore how we can work together.