Exeter to play host to UK’s first national circular economy ‘hub’

Late last year, UKRI confirmed its plans for allocating some £30m in the hopes of spurring progress towards a circular economy – an economic model in which resources are not extracted, used and disposed of. Funding is being used to support five R&D centres in London, Loughborough and Exeter, all working to tackle some of the world’s most linear materials.

The aim of the new National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Hub at the University of Exeter, UKRI said in a statement, is to coordinate work and enable knowledge-sharing between the centres.

Together, the centres will develop solutions which could result in the production of less waste – and higher levels of material reuse – across industries like construction, chemicals, metals and textiles. To this latter point, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a bin lorry full of textiles is burned or landfilled globally every second.

The hub specifically will also act as the UK’s first national circular economy “observatory”, collecting and analysing data that will be used to inform key policy and business decisions.

UKRI is working with bodies including Innovate UK; the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and five major research councils to support the main hub and the centres.

The University of Exeter, which is striving to reach net-zero ahead of the UK’s 2050 deadline and has a partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has named Professors Peter Hopkinson and Fiona Charnley from its Business School as leaders of the new hub. Hopkinson is the professor of circular economy while Charnley is the associate professor in the same field.

“As a country, we need to radically change how we use resources and by bringing together and harnessing expertise from academia, business and government we can enable that transformation,” Charnley said.

“The circular economy hub and the wider programme provide a unique and timely opportunity to coordinate and accelerate interdisciplinary circular economy research at a national scale, positioning the UK as thought-leaders in this growing field.”

Circle back

According to the think-tank Circle Economy, some 100 billion tonnes of virgin materials are being consumed annually by business. Less than 10% of these materials are believed to be effectively reused or recycled.

Resource consumption slowed on a global basis in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Earth Overshoot Day – the calendar date at which humanity will have used up nature’s resource budget for the entire year – came almost three weeks later in 2020 than in 2019, when the earliest date on record was recorded.

But green economy experts believe that this is due to lockdown restrictions and to the recession rather than a step-change in ambition and action from the private sector. As such, resource consumption is likely to rebound int the coming years without a concerted effort to buck linear trends of consumption.

Most nations have prioritised the decarbonisation of energy, transport and buildings over resource efficiency in the “green” components of their Covid-19 recovery plans. This was to be expected, given the global movement towards net-zero. However, there is a direct link between models of consumption and climate change. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has stated that some 45% of global annual emissions will only be tackled through transitioning to close-loop value chains, shifting food systems, scaling up emerging innovations and implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Sarah George

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