Why we need to be ready for a circular economy

Written by: Wayne Hubbard | Published:
Wayne Hubbard, chief operating officer at LWARB

As we move closer to a circular economy becoming a reality, we need to consider the implications for the waste management industry and its future role – because less waste will require a different infrastructure from what we have now.

The London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) recently launched a circular economy route map. It details around 100 actions that could deliver £2.8 billion of value to London every year by 2030.

Business is central to the delivery of this systemic change, but cities and local, regional and national government also have essential supporting roles to play: by removing obstacles, intervening to encourage accelerated transition and incorporating circular economy principles into their procurement and other practices.

Successful testing

At LWARB we have developed a sophisticated set of programmes which taken together offer support to circular economy business from start-up to maturity and allow businesses, academia, government and the community to work together to deliver circular economy projects.

They are all absolutely fascinating, innovative and interesting – but what is the impact on waste production likely to be? And how does this play into the need for different types of waste infrastructure and their land use implications?

LWARB asked this question of ARUP by asking it to consider the effect that a circular economy could have on waste production in London. ARUP looked at a range of circular economy (CE) initiatives, and then at their impact on waste production over time (to 2041), using a range of assumptions around the level of uptake.

Nine CE initiatives were examined, all of which have the potential to achieve waste reduction. Each one of the nine has been proven to be feasible in financial, social and environmental terms and has already been tried and tested in some parts of the world. It looked at three scenarios based on low uptake of CE initiatives, medium uptake and high, for three main waste streams: construction, demolition and excavation waste (CDEW); commercial and industrial waste; and household waste.

The results were stunning. When compared to a projection prepared by the Greater London Authority for the London Plan, overall waste could be reduced by around 15% by 2041 in the low-uptake scenario, 30% in the medium and 60% in the high. If we exclude CDEW, which skews the results, and assume the rest is municipal waste, the results are still impressive at a 10%, 20% and 35% reduction respectively.

Based on these calculations, even a medium level of uptake could lead to a two million tonne reduction in waste by 2041 against the baseline ‘business as usual’ projection of nine million tonnes. This would leave about seven million tonnes of municipal waste to manage.

London currently recycles just over half of all municipal waste, so if we conservatively assume that by 2041 around 70% of this waste would be recycled, then that would mean only about two million tonnes of non-recycled waste would need managing. This is nearly 600,000 tonnes less than a ‘business as usual’ scenario. And perhaps by 2041, we’ll have a rampant circular economy and could assume higher rates.

The implications of this are significant when it comes to planning the right type and amount of waste treatment and disposal infrastructure. And that’s where it starts to get really tricky for national, local and, in London, regional government.

Starting from today

To accelerate the circular economy, the role of government is to remove barriers, provide the right fiscal and legislative incentives and lead by example. Seen through this lens, both local and national government has a crucial role to play in effective land provision for the right kind of infrastructure, with over-provision of the wrong type of infrastructure just as dangerous to the development of a circular economy as under-provision.

As residual waste reduces, large-scale disposal or recovery infrastructure, typically incinerators, will need to cater for larger catchment areas to avoid over-provision. Getting the right infrastructure in place for the country needs a strategic approach so that national capacity is rationed appropriately. It might be that the current system of land use planning is able to deliver this but it should be recognised by all the government actors that if we have a successful transition to a circular economy, the need for residual waste infrastructure will decline and fewer strategic facilities will need to be built. These might also be complemented by ancillary facilities for advanced conversion of fossil materials into useful fuels.

While 2041 might seem too far away for us to be worried about, it should be noted that every time a new incinerator opens its gate, it has an operating life of 25 years, meaning one opening today would still be operating in 2042. So we need to get serious about the waste reduction implications of the circular economy, and we need to start thinking about it today.

Wayne Hubbard is chief operating officer at LWARB

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