Turning the resource revolution into a reality
The Resource Revolution campaign has highlighted the challenges to and the opportunities for a circular economy. Richard Belfield looks to the future
Finding new uses for what was once thrown away. That's what the circular economy is all about. It might be about reusing things, recycling them or recovering energy from them.
The bag-it-and-bin-it approach to waste is no longer valid. As Defra's Colin Church put it at the Resource Revolution panel debate on 10th May, it's about finding best uses for "the material formerly known as waste".
To really work, a circular economy needs each part of the process to inform and work with the others. After all, the person specifying the raw materials for a new product dictates what "waste" comes out at the end of that product's life. Even the very design of products can ensure more effective "end of life" management of secondary materials.
For recycling and waste management companies this has required a change in thinking - and will require more changes in the future. We are no longer at the end of a linear chain where waste gets put in the ground and forgotten about.
Instead we are now part of a process - manufacturing product which we sell back into a circular economy. We need to be sure that we get the best value from the raw material - the consumer's waste - by creating the products that the market wants.
The value of what we might have thrown away in the past is something that private and public sector organisations increasingly understand, although what to do about it is less often understood.
It is a change which has brought significant developments in the waste management industry - and there is more to come. Most of us know that there is decreasing demand for landfill sites along with a need for more infrastructure to treat waste and process materials into valuable commodities.
But it is about more than that; recycling and waste management companies will need to collaborate with the entire supply chain to make sure that consumers' waste can be treated in the best way possible.
Advising suppliers will help and that means making sure that businesses and local authorities know how to make the most from their waste. It means that they get a share in the value of that material. It also ensures that the material can find a new life rather than being landfilled.
Companies also need to acknowlege that they don't have all of the answers and that sometimes they will need to partner with others.
FCC Environment has done this by teaming up with charities at our household waste recycling centres to introduce reuse shops; and with WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling, reuse and refurbishment specialists to make sure items of value find a new life.
Like all waste management companies, there are challenges to finding the right use for all of our waste. Investing in materials recycling facilities for business waste is one example of where we are looking to put in place the infrastructure needed to support a circular economy.
Looking wider, waste management companies will need to know the value of the new materials that they produce to justify future investment.
But first, they will need to see more certainty in the markets in which they trade. A quick look at a pricing graph for most recycled materials over the past couple of years shows significant progress can be made here.
If the company is producing secondary (essentially "new" raw) materials, then the debate about when a material ceases to be waste and becomes a product again needs to take front-of-stage. It could even be argued that much of what we handle is never actually waste - because it always has a value.
In 2011 and 2012, the European Commission improved this process for ferrous metals, aluminium and glass. Paper and copper have been delayed and it seems we are a long way from changes for other materials such as textiles and plastics.
Adding clarity and price stability to the markets would make justifying investment a much simpler process. In the meantime, it is important that companies are able to share the risks as well as the rewards associated with building new infrastructure for partners.
A circular economy creates massive opportunities for us all. We should be pleased with progress so far - UK businesses now recycle and recover more material than they landfill - and excited by the opportunities that lie ahead.
More recycled material in products means more demand for those materials - and more stable markets - as well as less demand and need for expensive virgin materials and their associated environmental impact.
For anyone looking to reuse, recycle and recover more, the message from the Resource Revolution campaign is simple: you are not alone. Wherever you sit in the loop, there are trusted partners around you who can help to find answers to provide a secure, profitable and sustainable future.
Richard Belfield is development director at FCC Environment