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Merging the circular economy and waste hierarchy

The publicity that has surrounded the concept of the circular economy is hitherto unknown in the waste and resources sector. Not since the adoption of the landfill directive and the subsequent landfill tax has a concept been so readily discussed.

The amazing aspect of this solution to how we look at the world we live in is that this is not a policy, but a concept championed by one of our greatest sailors. Dame Ellen McArthur’s support of the circular economy shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, it appears that with a fair wind, the circular economy is set to influence policy for the next ten years.

Having spoken at length on the circular economy, I am complete supporter of the concept, but consider one of the sectors that the circular economy bypasses is local government. With this in mind, I have felt that the public sector is still wedded to the EU directives that have been adopted over the last two decades, which doesn’t leave a huge amount of space for dynamic policy development.

I therefore felt we needed to challenge one the bastions of the current waste policy; the waste hierarchy. It is a pyramid that has over 10 million hits on Google and can be recited by most practitioners with ease. However, do we really understand it?

The concept of the circular economy is to maximise the circularity of materials within an industrial society, by designing products that can be dismantled and refurbished and reused. This reuse concept is at the top of the traditional hierarchy, but has been seen by many as a series of home composting calculation debacles or trying to quantify the weight of products sold at the local household waste site. The circular economy instigates a robustness to reuse, that considers the practicalities of material management, rather than waste management.

To demonstrate the concept of the circular economy, The Improvement and Efficiency Social Enterprise (iESE), local government’s transformation mutual, has developed a partnership with ICT Refurbishment Ltd and is setting up a national Public Sector ICT Circular Economy Club, with the aim of refurbishing end of life ICT from the public sector, rather than recycling it. 

 In trying to invigorate the concept within the existing policy framework, I decided to redraw the resource management hierarchy.

Greenfield hierarchy

In my resource management hierarchy, I have sought to maximise and clarify the solutions available through the circular economy.

In essence this has meant the hierarchy has grown up, with new layers added at the top for dismantling and refurbishment, reuse for alternative uses, closed loop material recycling and material recycling.

This is a hierarchy for consideration and comment, so lets open the debate, does this work?

Dr David Greenfield MCIWM CEnv, director of Public Sector IESE/ICTR

Readers' comments (1)

  • One improvement would be to more clearly differentiate between R1 and D10 facilities. A CHP facility can still be classed as disposal if it falls short of the R1 threshold.

    Of course incineration has no part to play in a circular economy, just as burning the floorboards has no place in a long term household heating strategy.

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