How close is London to achieving a circular economy?

EXCLUSIVE: A year after the launch of a route map outlining how the collective actions of the private sector could catalyse a transition to the circular economy in London, edie investigates how much progress has been made to close the loop.

The London Waste and Recycling Board’s (LWARB) circular economy programme, published June 2017, is targeting a £50m investment by 2020 to make the city a place where businesses utilising closed-loop systems can “flourish”. Notably, the roadmap suggests that up to £2.8bn could be unlocked annually if this vision is realised.

To mark the anniversary of the route map launch, LWARB this week held the capital’s first Circular Economy Week event, bringing together businesses, charities, local authorities and social enterprises to inspire action and deliver a more resilient and sustainable economy.

With corporates including Ikea, ASOS and Costa committing to the route map’s 100 recommendations – across key sectors of economic growth, including the built environment, textiles and food – LWARB’s chief executive, Wayne Hubbard, told edie that the business appetite for embedding circularity principles at all levels has “grown exponentially”.

“We are now starting to tick more and more of those 100 actions off and we feel there has been some real momentum building,” Hubbard says.

“Companies we are dealing with, both at the very small start-up level and at the corporate level, are shifting towards embedding circularity in their innovative new business models. Moreover, a collaborative way of working, where innovative start-ups trialling new business models and taking risks are working with big companies, is beginning to emerge.”

The capital’s population is predicted to reach more than 11 million by 2050, highlighting the need for more durable and reusable resources as the city grows. LWARB’s plan argues that its closed-loop systems across the cities key markets will alleviate resource pressures, but Hubbard admits that progress in some sectors has been faster than others.

Alongside swift progress in the built environment and textile industries respectively – including the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent call for evidence on the impact of fast fashion – a lot of investment and innovation took place in the capital to target plastics over the past 12 months.

Corporate and political attention continues to remain firmly set on the damaging build-up of plastic waste in oceans, and Hubbard cited the Refill London project as a “pioneering” scheme to reduce the amount of plastic water bottles discarded.

Closed-loop coffee

Costa is one of the many businesses that has agreed to offer free refills at its stores and the company has emerged as an advocate for LWARB’s circular roadmap.

Since the publication of the guide, the UK’s largest coffee shop chain has committed to recycle the equivalent of its entire annual sales of takeaway cups – at a financial cost to the business – after successfully trialling in-store recycling at more than 2,000 of its stores nationwide.

Speaking to edie, Costa’s energy & environment manager, Oliver Rosevear, says that the route map has helped initiate a “mindset shift” within the brand and the wider corporate sphere, which encouraged companies to redefine their waste streams as resource streams in London and across the UK alike. 

“We will always run key sustainability initiatives as we are so customer-facing by the nature of our business, but there has definitely been a shift towards working across the board and taking a holistic approach to circularity that is being embedded in our business models,” Rosevear says.

“Our challenge around coffee cups has driven us to question how we can act consistently across our operations to champion recyclability, reuse and investment in infrastructure. We are no longer out doing small-scale trials – it is about proving to other businesses that [circularity] is the right thing to do and showing the value of scaling it up across the whole business.”

The plastics drive has seen Costa encourage London train stations, shopping centres and airports to promote improved recycling infrastructure and reuse rates, but moves by the coffee chain and LWARB to engage the capital’s local authorities is ongoing.

Rosevear explains that Costa and LWARB have had some “really positive conversations” with councils about improving infrastructure to cater for coffee cups and are now encouraging more London boroughs to ask their street cleaners to separate cups for recycling following a pilot scheme in Westminster.

Going forward, Costa may expand its partnership with RoadChef, which sees customers receive a 5p discount on snacks and drinks if they return their used packaging for recycling, while also exploring closed-loop schemes for textiles and its stores.

“If you want to get a good return of quality materials and avoid contamination in resource streams, offering a monetary incentive is a good way of encouraging waste to be single-segregated,” Rosevear says.

“I think this is something we need to look at more widely as a company, as an industry and as country to make sure we keep the highest level of material reuse possible, which is key to driving the circular piece.”

Looking ahead

Public awareness of both plastics and coffee cups has forced businesses and regions to accelerate actions. However, for less-documented waste streams – including the 44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste generated globally each year – LWARB admits that it “needs to do a bit more”.

As for the potential £2.8bn windfall that could be generated annually by transitioning to circular models, which will also create 12,000 jobs according to LWARB, metrics to measure progress are still being developed.

“Some of the measures we will be looking at include waste figures, recycling rates and the extent to which customers are moving from consumers of stuff to users of services,” Hubbard explains.

“The move from consumption to use, in London and across the UK, has risen hugely and this continues to be a trend that is accelerating. It’s a complicated picture but my view is that we are travelling in the right direction.”  

LWARB will run its Circular Economy Week each year, with an emphasis on moving actions “up a notch” by collaborating with more organisations across the public and private sectors to achieve the route map’s headline targets, as well as strengthening its engagement with existing partners.

Later this year, a pilot accelerator hub will be launched at LWARB’s office, which will see several businesses meeting to find solutions to issues such as furniture waste, e-waste and monetising waste streams.

Additionally, LWARB will help other UK cities, including Peterborough and Glasgow, as well as global cities, create similar route maps – a move Hubbard claims has “raised the London issue further afield”.

“We get calls from cities all over the world, including Vancouver and Barcelona, which are interested in what we are doing and want to emulate our route map,” Hubbard adds. “The population and economy of London is one of the biggest in Europe, so people are really keen to see what we are achieving.”

Sarah George

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