A circular economy demands a new approach to infrastructure

intext-circ-econ-blogThis post is by Anne Velenturf, Phil Purnell and Juliet Jopson, the co-ordination team of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme at the University of Leeds.

As consumers stock up on Christmas presents, the annual homage to consumerism sees many products end up in the bin as soon as festive cheer has faded. The destination of three product groups that are among the Christmas favourites – textile, plastic, and electrical and electronic products – were investigated by Resource Recovery from Waste and Green Alliance and the results published in Building a circular economy: how a new approach to infrastructure can put an end to waste. Current UK infrastructure perpetuates a wasteful linear ‘take-make-use-dispose’ economy. We have looked at how new resources and waste infrastructure could speed up the shift to a more circular economy, restoring the environment to bring economic prosperity and social benefits.

People want a circular economy but infrastructure doesn’t support it yet
A circular economy that makes better use of materials and eradicates waste is broadly supported by government, business, NGOs and communities throughout the UK. The new government has a vision “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environment programme” and the Industrial Strategy states that it is “…committed to moving towards a more circular economy”.

But current infrastructure investment does not support this vision, heavily skewed as it is towards ‘energy from waste’ facilities that destroy recyclable materials and perpetuate our dependency on virgin resources. Waste management in the UK continues to rely on this waste management option along with exporting waste, both of which are damaging to health and the environment. Defra’s Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme (WIDP) outlines £3 billion of investment in preparing refuse derived fuel and new energy from waste plants between now and 2042.

Better recycling is only part of the answer
Investment in new recycling infrastructure is out of tune with recycling targets. Recycling in England has stagnated well below the 50 per cent target set for 2020. To meet the more stretching 2030 targets, the UK needs to invest in over 80 new recycling plants (60 for plastics, 17 for textiles and six for waste electronics), design better household waste collection systems and use much more recycled material in new products.

While a move towards a circular economy based on recycling would be an improvement on the status quo, it would encourage production and consumption levels in the UK to remain well above sustainable levels. Many recycling processes actually ‘downcycle’ materials into lower value uses, such as transforming clothing into insulation materials. Moving to a more transformative circular economy can preserve more value and fix these issues.

Making a transformative circular economy part of everyday life
Achieving the government’s aspirations for a clean and green circular economy means we need to reduce resource consumption. This can be achieved by making products designed to last, giving consumers a right to repair and encouraging remanufacturing. Recycling should be a last resort, and energy from waste and landfill should be phased out almost entirely in the long run.

A transformative circular economy would see fewer resources flowing through our economy, requiring less physical waste infrastructure than a system based solely on recycling, but with more specialised facilities to enable true closed loop recycling, for example clothing-to-clothing recycling plants.

This high quality recycling needs to be accompanied by new infrastructure and systems to revolutionise how products are made and how materials are used across the economy. This would see refill stations in supermarkets, product take-back centres and logistics, remanufacturing plants, labelling and information about end-of-use options for products, and a harmonised household waste collection system, all becoming everyday parts of life.

An opportunity for government to lead the way
Government action is critical to bring about this transformation. And there are ways in which it can help. First of all, we must know what resources are present in our economy and how much infrastructure is required. This lack of knowledge hinders decision making, investment and the growth of alternative systems. The WIDP already publishes details of incineration, energy from waste and landfill facilities. Reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling facilities should be monitored in the same way. And the development of the National Materials Datahub by the Office of National Statistics should continue, to enable resource flows through the economy to be tracked.

There are strong arguments for the government to do something. It is estimated that a transformative circular economy could create about half a million UK jobs by 2030. Better product design and reuse would also help to contribute a quarter of the carbon reductions needed to meet the government’s net zero carbon target by 2050. Globally, the circular economy is forecasted to grow to a value of $4.5 trillion by 2030, roughly doubling in size in every decade thereafter. As we enter a new era of global trade, the UK should be taking a leading role to maximise the UK’s opportunities in this lucrative market.

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