Riding the circular economy buzz train


We have all become very familiar of late with the buzz term the ‘circular economy’. I use the word ‘buzz’, because it means different things to different people, and partly because its hardly a new concept, with various stakeholders recovering value for centuries. Nevertheless, I was to use the concepts to talk about three very interesting case study stories that have been highlighted recently, but which demonstrate the potential of the concepts at different scales.

The first, was headlined ‘The cafe serving up junk food’. A title gauranteed to pique the interest of any waster. It was essentially about a cafe ‘Elise’s Cafe’, in Northampton (UK), that serves food using ingredients that would otherwise have been thrown away by supermarkets and other retailers. Its part of the Real Junk Food Project across the UK. Customers ‘pay-as-they-feel’, meaning what they wish or they can offer to do the dishes. It serves around 40 – 60 customers per day and saves around half tonne of food. The part owner, Shena Cooper recently received the award of Northampton’s most inspirational woman. In these times when there is an increasing focus on reducing food waste, recovering value, and community engagement, this was a heart warming story.

The second, was a recommendation from the London Assembly Environment Committee that putting long-term sustainability at the heart of all Mayoral strategies and that London should work towards standardised municipal waste collections.The report entitled Growing, growing, gone: long-term sustainable growth for London argues that “without good planning, London could suffer unreliable energy supplies and excessive carbon emissions; a shortage of drinkable water; contaminated flooding caused by sewage overflow and habitat destruction resulting in fewer green spaces for Londoners.”

It also notes that “a circular economy involving greater waste reduction; re-use and shared use; repair and remanufacture would provide a major economic opportunity for London, offering billions of pounds worth of business and tens of thousands of jobs.”

One of the key ways it proposes to achieve this more circular approach is through standardised municipal waste collections across London, and separate waste streams (including increased food waste collections). Thus moving the capital from its current 33% recycling rate, to a target of around 45%. It seems odd that there is only now that the Assembly has realised the potential opportunities in London. Whether or not there are indeed, tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds worth of business for London is debatable. Definitions of ‘standard collections’ (I have previously written about the debate around commingling), and quite how the political will would be found to drive through the changes in the various London boroughs is also unclear. However, what isn’t debatable is the potential not only for London, but for the wider UK in a more engagement with the circular economy concepts.

This brings me to the last story. In conjunction with representatives from France, Flanders, and the Netherlands, the UK recently signed an  international voluntary agreement that aims to make better use of secondary resources. Led by the Dutch Government, the North Sea Resources Roundabout (NSRR), in the first instance, will aim to stimulate trade of incinerator bottom ash (IBA), which can contain plastics and ultra-fine non-ferrous metals such as aluminium, lead, zinc, silver and gold. Other materials, including PVC and compost, will be addressed later as part of the agreement.


The Dutch Environmental Minister, Sharon Dijksma commented that: “By redefining what constitutes ‘resources’, and at the same time aligning the definition among neighbouring countries, things will get easier for businesses. This will benefit the environment and will add considerable impetus to economic activity between countries in the North Sea region.” While Henk Kamp, the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs: ”The Green Deal underlines that the circular economy promotes business, provides employment opportunities and improves our local living environment. For example, compost will be easier to trade when neighbouring countries view it as fertiliser rather than waste.”

Trully, the potential implications of the deal are significant for the waste and resources sector, but of course also for Europe and its trading partners. It is hoped therefore that beyond the political speak, that the benefits of this more ‘circular approach’ can indeed be accrued.

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