What resource efficiency innovations are needed today for the circular economy of the future?

The development of offsite construction solutions, the Internet of Things, and robotics and automation will prove crucial in utilising the untapped potential of waste-to-resource innovations and addressing the challenges involved in recovering valuable materials, according to a new report from the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN).

Liam the robot - Apple's answer to e-waste. The KTN report suggests that automation and robotics will enable increased productivity in areas such as waste separation and processing

Liam the robot - Apple's answer to e-waste. The KTN report suggests that automation and robotics will enable increased productivity in areas such as waste separation and processing

The report from KTN - the UK's innovation network - aims to stimulate innovation in the waste sector by highlighting future technology trends and opportunities for growth in the circular economy through technological development and increased resource efficiency.

A list of infrastructure systems, materials, emerging and enabling technologies are identified as opportunities that can be exploited by British companies to continually help the UK to benefit from a burgeoning waste sector.

Innovation possibilities

Specifically, the report explores how resource productivity approaches in the British construction industry – the largest waste-producing sector in the UK - could bring cost, efficiency and environmental benefits for the sector.

Researchers predict that offsite construction - structures built at a different location than the location of use - would significantly reduce waste in the construction process, providing opportunities to implement modern manufacturing resource efficiency methods. Already, construction firms such as Berkeley Homes, Carillion and Interserve are adopting various sustainability initiatives to deliver significant reductions in waste and carbon emissions.

The KTN publication goes on to investigate Britain's manufacturing sphere, suggesting that the focus for targeted improvements within the sector should be on resource productivity, which can be realised through circular economy approaches.

Bio-based, bio-inspired and biodegradable packaging materials - which are already being explored by some major retailers - will be developed at a greater pace; and advancements in robotics and automatio - which have already enabled tech giant Apple to regain valuable resources from discarded iPhones - have been singled out as innovation opportunities for the future. The report suggests that these technologies will ultimately enable increased productivity in areas such as waste separation and processing.

With the number of connected devices expected to grow to 25–50 billion by 2020 (from around 10 billion today), it would seem logical that emerging and enabling technologies will operate as enablers for innovation opportunities. KTN believe that the Internet of Things - which has contributed to significant emissions reductions for the likes of Vodafone and Samsung - could potentially enable first-time digital marketplaces to localise the supply of waste materials.

Commenting on the report, KTN's Circular Economy Lead Catherine Joce told edie: “This report found plenty of innovation opportunities in every sector we looked at, such as the roll of offsite construction in significantly reducing waste in the construction sector or the increasing role of automation in remanufacturing.

"One area where we uncovered especially numerous opportunities for the UK waste sector was in supporting the development of a bioeconomy. KTN will continue to work with UK companies to exploit these exciting opportunities as the UK develops a resource-efficient and resilient economy.“

Potential barriers

Nevertheless, the report warns that the transition to a circular economy in the waste industry will not be realised without overcoming a number of key barriers.

Infrastructure systems are presented with the reprocessing challenges due to the increasing use of materials at end of life, for example multi-material products such as polystyrene-insulated construction blocks. Moreover, technology lock-in due to existing infrastructure and a lack of standards in new products from waste are viewed as barriers to the manufacturing and reprocessing of materials. The report also acknowledges that the increasing complexity and 'miniaturization' of products presents new end-of-life challenges.

Innovate UK Lead Technologist Resource Efficiency Nick Cliffe added: “The business of recovering valuable materials from waste is a significant global opportunity that the UK seems well placed to benefit from.

"This work was designed to further develop the thinking of Innovate UK's resource efficiency programme and explore with some of our key sectors the nature of their waste streams and the opportunities for innovation to maximise the value that can be recovered from them.”

Last month, Cliffe spoke exclusively to edie to discuss how resource-heavy industries should embrace remanufacturing as a way of creating more resilient business models and advancing the shift towards a global circular economy. Cliffe admitted that many barriers need to be overcome to ensure the UK can move towards remanufacturing-based business models, but remained confident that the adoption of a positive change in both thinking and business models will enable firms to overcome the present technical and financial challenges.

edie's Resource Revolution Conference

Industrial applications of the circular economy is a central focus of the edie Resource Revolution Conference.

Taking place on 5 July, the edie Resource Revolution Conference provides resource management, sustainability, waste, product, supply chain and design professionals with tools they need to rethink their approach to resource use and waste outputs, drive organisational efficiencies, behaviour change and profitability, and effect a revolution in their company’s sustainability credentials.

You can view the agenda of the conference here at register to attend here.

George Ogleby


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