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What is the role for the waste management industry in a circular economy?

There’s plenty of talk about the circular economy at the moment, but how far is the concept understood and how far is the waste management industry responding to it?

A circular economy is one in which materials are reclaimed and reused or recycled to re-enter the production cycle - as opposed to the traditional “linear” process which dates back to the Industrial Revolution and in which materials are thrown away after use. Waste managers often repeat the trope that the imperative for a circular economy is resource management and they must evolve to become stewards of their resources. 

Indeed, the trade body for what has hitherto been a very traditional industry, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) recently published a report on the benefits of adopting the circular economy. It said designing for recovery could mean an extra 140 million tonnes of waste recycled by 2020, helping to create a £1.4bn boost to the UK economy.

This was followed by an announcement later from resource minister Lord de Mauley, who also came out in support of the circular economy.

He said: “Government can set the [right] conditions by providing policies and the legal framework, but a truly circular economy hinges on everyone playing their part, the resource management industry, local authorities and ordinary people.”

It is clear that traditional waste management companies will have to undergo a transformation and some have started on that path.

Jeff Anderson, Biffa’s industrial and commercial managing director has identified the factors contributing to the shift as: landfill tax, which has driven up the cost of disposal; increased demand for reusable commodities; a recognition that waste contains siginficant valuable commodities; a growing awareness of green policies and the availability of cheap finance to invest in waste recovery technologies.

But what would be the likely role for waste management companies in a circular economy?

The chairman of the ESA, David Palmer-Jones, who is also chief executive of waste management giant SITA UK, said that companies will need to evolve into “material managers” that are responsible for collecting materials after use, reprocessing them and making them available as the raw materials for new products.

David Sargent, managing director at waste management firm London Waste, echoed these thoughts. He told MRW: “Waste managers will need to complete their evolution into resource managers, helping the flow of materials and energy around the system.”

Sargent said waste management companies are already playing a key role in helping the circular economy start to build momentum: “An increasing amount of materials is being recycled, and more and more food and green waste is being sent to AD plants and compost centres. Residual waste is increasingly used to create energy instead of being sent to landfills.”

Biffa’s Anderson agreed the transition was already taking place, with waste management companies responding to changing industrial customers’ needs: “In 2013 our customers want us to advise them on cost effective solutions that increasingly recover or recycle their waste, and that means less landfill and more solution based commodity extraction.”

Palmer-Jones told MRW that waste management companies need to adapt rapidly to the new priorities of treating waste as resource. “What we see some great examples already,” he said, “Eco Plastics and Coca-Cola [Continuum] are great, Renault with Sita is a great example, where we help them with their end-of-life vehicles.”

But he said: “What I think you’ll see is that some players in the market will be able to adapt better than others.” He put this down to the need to change mindset, and pointed out the need to invest in improved skills and educating people in the industry for “completely different business models”.

Simon Catford, sustainability and regulatory director at Viridor, points out significant challenges to achieving the circular economy.

He said: “Whilst the term and concept are relatively simple, the realities in the form of economic, cultural and political or policy barriers to its adoption as a dominant economic model and way of doing business, are far from it.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, any transition towards more circular economic systems will be extremely challenging at both UK and global levels, and we are nowhere near the utopian vision of a waste-free society.”

Catford also questioned how soon and how successfully what remains largely an abstract concept can be translated into practice.

Palmer-Jones said that big manufacturers and global retailers were driving initiatives: “Industry is evolving faster than Government policy in this area.  They are very enlightened – the Unilevers, the Kingfishers, Marks and Spencers of this world. They are seeing the opportunity to re-supply themselves with materials that they require. It gives them some control over volatility and supply of their raw materials into the future.”

He warned retailers and manufacturers to start out on the path as early as possible because ”there is a long tail to varying degrees of manufacturing”. He said the period of transition depends on “the sophistication on the industries that we are dealing with and their perception of the importance of doing that”.

Another challenge, according to the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, is that few producers are aware of the concept of the circular economy. Susanne Baker, EEF’s climate and environment policy adviser, said there was widespread unfamiliarity with the concept but some manufacturers were already engaged in circular activities, such as Xerox, Rolls-Royce and Caterpillar, to their financial benefit.

Steve Lee, the chief executive of the CIWM, said that industry should work in partnership with industrial designers to regain value from materials at their end-of-life and form a mutual understanding of how products could be designed better with recovery in mind.

This echoed calls from design expert Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at designers Seymourpowell, for designers of products used throughout our society to work with those involved in the life cycle of the materials. 

He said: “It has been absolutely a revelation to go and visit a plastic recycler and seeing what happens with the stuff that we design, months or years after what we have produced [is thrown away].

“And then, seeing how we can feed what we have learnt back into the design is a revelation and, in a couple of cases, has forced us to change our designs.”

Palmer-Jones reckons this nascent demand for reclaiming materials and feeding them back into the production process means traditional waste managers will have a very different relationship with the manufacturing and retail industries than before. New industrial partnerships would be “sort of symbiotic relationships”, he said, in which resource managers would “create manageable material flows which we will steward back to [manufacturers and retailers] in the appropriate format.”

These close industrial partnerships will mean providing help to industry to design out waste and promote resource efficiency. And the good news is, he said: “The benefit for us will be that we receive the materials and extract further value, prepare the materials to go back to industry.”

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