According to a prominent academic in the field of sustainable economics, Professor Paul Ekins, action must be taken to prevent materials from becoming waste in the first place as this will ultimately benefit the economy.

“We need to get smarter, especially if we want this agenda to help us deliver on the competitiveness, growth and jobs objectives which are currently at the top of the priority list of public policy,” he said.

Professor Ekins, who heads up the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, was speaking during the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s annual conference in London yesterday (June 11).

He told delegates that a move away from waste to materials management would not only enable the waste sector to make more money and add more value to materials, but would mean the wider economy experienced lower costs.

He challenged the industry to reinvent itself to reflect this fundamental step change. “You need to reinvent yourselves as materials and resource managers,” he said. “Waste is so last century, don’t you think?”

“Materials are resources when they have a positive economic value and they are wastes when they have a negative economic value,” he continued. “But in the journey from resources to waste materials they lose their economic value.”

Prof Ekins commended the sector however for adding value to waste through disposal, energy recovery, recycling, reuse and other materials handling methods. But he argued that adding this value also added costs to the economy.

“In all my academic life, I’ve never seen a real estimate of the costs to the economy of waste management, the end of pipe process, but I imagine it’s not insignificant,” he said

“Of course, in a macro-economy, one person’s costs are another person’s livelihood, and that’s very important to bear in mind.”

He told delegates that the waste sector would need to intervene earlier in the “journey from resources to waste” and that it would need to reduce the quantity of materials required to fulfil a service and offered light-weighting as an example.

Product durability was also important to the transformation from a linear to circular economy, extending the life of materials before they were finally disposed of.

The professor called on the industry to reduce the energy and other materials used while a product remained in service and to explore material substitution to replace materials that were either hazardous or difficult to recycle or dispose of.

He added that a transformation to a circular economy would require designing products that were easy to recycle and reuse and called for incentives to encourage separate collection systems that minimised the costs of recycling and reuse.

His final recommendation was the facilitation of industrial clusters that exchanged materials while they were still resources to prevent the materials from becoming waste.

“This is the idea of industrial symbiosis, which is particularly close to my heart because it most closely resembles the living economy, which the human economy increasingly needs to mimic,” he said.

Nick Warburton

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie