Circular re-entry: are you ready to go beyond recycling?

At ground level, the circular economy means a lot more than just sending your waste to be recycled. It's about tapping into those materials once they re-enter the economy. Mike Taylor explains

The circular economy is based on the idea that we can reuse the same resource over and over again, without the need to mine for new minerals or drill for oil to produce virgin polymers. Not only does the circular economy aim to answer the issue of resource scarcity we face today, but I believe that it can also make organisations vastly more efficient.

This idea is simple: firstly, we should recycle as much as possible and buy recycled goods wherever we can, and secondly, we should aim to reduce the total amount of waste we produce. Many organisations have applied the first point and have achieved high recycling rates. However, applying the circular economy means a lot more than just sending one’s waste to a recycler – it also means green procurement and reuse where feasible.

The circular economy will undoubtedly be the model that we will all use regarding our waste in the future, and will improve our resource experience dramatically. However, the natural resistance within organisations to change is a persistent barrier. We all need to accept the required changes and adapt our behaviours.

First, we should bear in mind that the circular economy should have the lowest environmental impact possible. With transport often being the main contributor to environmental impact, whenever possible the materials being recycled should be treated, separated and baled on-site. This has the added benefit of transforming an expense (the ‘waste’) into a resource (your baled materials), attracting significant market value.

Second, remember that recycling wasted materials is only the start of the journey. These materials need to come back into the economy, so your procurement department must prioritise the purchase of recycled items over products made from virgin materials.

The first point is an important one, because it could be the enabler for many organisations. If this on-site treatment model brings revenue to an organisation, it will be more likely to embrace the changes and become, as we call it, ‘circular economy ready’.

Organisations may need some help, as the technical knowledge that is required to make any organisation ready for the circular economy will often not exist in-house. This knowledge is based on having access to the right people to implement the solutions, whilst also investing in the right technology to turn waste into valuable materials.

Let’s take the example of a large office block in a city centre. Materials such as paper, cardboard, metals, as well as printer cartridges, batteries, fluorescent tubes and food waste are either being disposed of as unsegregated general waste, or collected as separate waste streams by contractors, to then be reprocessed externally. Neither of these scenarios recognises the full value of the materials to the producer.

Let’s now imagine that a recycling team segregates the above waste streams and bales the materials with a value, such as cardboard, cans, paper or plastics. This means that the majority of the materials on that site will now be recycled and sold at market value. As a result, income will be generated from the materials that the organisation no longer needs.

To complete the circle, procurement departments must also start to realise the importance of green purchasing and focus on buying recycled products rather than just doing the best commercial deal. It’s clear that the circular economy is here to stay, and those that take part early on will see major benefits in the long-term.

Mike Taylor is managing director for MITIE’s waste & environmental operations

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