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?

Businesses may have more than profit on their mind when they look at circular economy

Current business support guidance may be missing opportunities to engage companies with circular economy practices by assuming that business managers and owners are solely motivated by money.

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.

A globe moves toward a greener closed loop representing 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.