Are new eco technologies fit for a circular economy?

Rendered Image of Chiral Carbon Nanotube TwineBrighton’s Eco Technology Show is fast rising up the list of ‘must go to’ events for anyone in the resource stewardship arena.

Aimed particularly at local authority thinkers, doers and buyers, it showcases green transport solutions, all the latest building technologies and renewable energy, from off-grid to big kit.

Material efficiency is a growing strand and, this Friday (27 June), Green Alliance is hosting a ‘Big Debate’ at the centre of the show on the circular economy.

The impetus for this discussion came from work we’ve been spearheading with the Circular Economy Task Force and the Technology Strategy Board.  Excited by scientific advances in materials and processes, but concerned about how far they subscribe to circular economy principles of ease of reuse, remanufacture and recycling, we had a meeting in January to explore the opportunities and challenges of High Value Manufacturing (HVM).

High value manufacturing crucial to the UK economy
HVM is a Catapult under the Technology Strategy Board.  This means that it is an area of economic and technological activity seen as crucial to the UK’s future prosperity, which needs support along the rocky road from lab to market.   This is done through funding centres, acting as test beds for participating companies, as well as competitions for research and development grants.  HVM covers some of our flagship industries, like aerospace, defence and automotive, and involves some of our best known companies, like Rolls Royce, to some of the smallest, most entrepreneurial SMEs.

The materials of most interest are those with great new properties in terms of being strong, flexible and light, but it is not clear how easily they can be recovered at the end of their life (or rather end of their first life).  So carbon fibre composite materials, for instance, which are hugely useful to reduce the weight, and therefore the carbon footprint, of aircraft and cars, are very difficult to recycle with present technology.  We may decide that the advantages mean this doesn’t matter, but that rather depends on knowing what scale of unrecoverable materials we might be dealing with in the future.  If these materials are only used in very specialist applications, the tonnage might be small, but if they spread into mainstream use, for instance in cars or household appliances, they could become a significant future waste stream.

Even if the tonnage is small, we might decide that recoverability (ie options for reuse, remanufacturing and recycling) is an important goal to pursue anyway.  Marrying up light-weighting, say, with recyclability, might open up new technological and business opportunities in reprocessing the materials.  We were extremely pleased that one outcome of the Green Alliance meeting was the inclusion of circular economy language in the aims of a High Value Manufacturing grant competition on light-weighting.

Seeing new materials through the circular economy lens
So why are we at the Eco Technology Show in Brighton?  The materials used to give environmental advantage in construction and transport need to be seen through the circular economy lens as much as through the low carbon lens.  Those coming to Brighton to understand what their buildings and car fleets might look like in the future, will want to know what end of life options are available, and may well want a say in how far these considerations are weighed up, and maybe traded off, against each other. 

At the moment, we are concerned about new composites and other ways of fusing materials together such as in additive manufacturing, like 3D printing. In future, it could be nano-scale coatings to materials, and more products that are based on biological materials and processes.   All of them need a conscious assessment of what they would mean in a circular economy.

At our debate in Brighton, Gareth Brown from WRAP will be talking about resource efficiency in construction, and the importance of keeping an eye on future materials. We’ll also be hearing from Nick Powell from Ricardo AEA, an expert in low carbon vehicles. And they will be joined by David Greenfield, who has explored the opportunities for recovering IT equipment for many years, and is keen that other sectors learn the lessons of taking complex products from being badly designed landfill fodder to super high tech circular systems.

We hope visitors to the Brighton show will be asking these questions about the fascinating new technologies they see there.  If there is one clear message that has come out our work of the Circular Economy Task Force, and the work of both the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, it is this: get the design right from the start.

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