Achieving a circular economy

SITA UK, a subsidiary of SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT, is a recycling and resource management company, which serves more than 12 million people and handles 8.5 million tonnes of domestic, commercial and industrial waste each year. The company provides services for over 42,000 public and private-sector customers, and operates a network of facilities, including recycling, composting, biomass production, waste collection, energy-from-waste plants and landfill sites.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the ultimate goal of SITA UK is to operate in a world with no more waste, where best use is made of all discarded materials by feeding them back into the cycle of production and consumption, instead of losing them forever to landfill.

SITA UK’s technical development director Stuart Hayward-Higham explains why this isn’t a case of “turkey’s voting for Christmas” and why waste management companies only play a small, if not important, part in achieving a more sustainable model of consumption.

“The word ‘waste’ no longer means that something is lost forever, it only means that the producer of the waste no longer has a need for it. Others may be able to use it, or the raw resources, and that’s the job of businesses like ours – to find a sustainable use or users for the materials others throw away,” he says.

“Resource management companies are always working to find new ways to make use of materials that would otherwise be landfilled and to improve the proportion of collected materials that can be recycled. For example, SITA UK is currently commissioning the UK’s first end-of-life plastics facility, which converts plastics that cannot be recycled, such as microwave meal film lids, into diesel fuel.

“But improving recycling rates and diverting as much material from landfill as possible requires the buy-in of everyone involved in the lifecycle of a product, from designer, through to manufacturer, retailer and consumer.”

Design is one of the major culprits of waste and we need to think about how we can design products for their whole lifecycle

Mr Hayward-Higham points out that collecting materials, which have been discarded, and feeding them back into the manufacturing cycle is not the first step towards a circular economy.

“Design is one of the major culprits of waste and we need to think about how we can design products for their whole lifecycle,” he says. “By carefully considering design of products and packaging, we can minimise the amount of raw materials that enter the circular economy in the first place, ensure they have a long lifespan before they are discarded and, finally, ensure they are easy to extract resources from to return to the manufacturing process at the end of their life.

“For example, products that are designed to be upgraded or remanufactured would allow for them to be returned, renewed, restyled and resold as an improved version of the original, which is the reason most of us ‘upgrade’. This already occurs in products, such as photocopiers, where the ‘chassis’ might be used a number of times, but each time it looks new, feels new, has new functions and still does the job.”

In fact, Mr Hayward-Higham says there are even wider, more fundamental, cultural changes society can make as a whole to minimise waste.

“If you stand back and take a look at the reasons why materials have been discarded, you begin to think about changes we could make to the way we live our lives, which opens a huge number of opportunities,” he says. “For example, we could move towards a model where products are replaced by services, known as ‘servitisation’.

“For instance, householders buy drills to make holes, but they don’t necessarily need to buy a drill to make a hole; they just need access to one, perhaps through a short-term rental. This means that the drills can be managed through the hirer, and their repair and maintenance can be conducted in an economical way. The result is that they are used for longer and not thrown away by the householder when a part breaks or wears out.”

For many, the circular economy is a slightly abstract concept, and it is difficult for organisations and individuals to know what they can do to make a difference. Increasingly, SITA UK is helping customers to make the shift to a circular and sustainable model by providing practical solutions.


In partnership with SITA UK, Keep Britain Tidy has begun a national study to find new ways of improving recycling rates in England’s major cities.

Recycling in England is flat-lining and, while some areas of the country are reaching recycling rates nearing 70 per cent, other areas are only achieving 15 to 20 per cent.

Among those authorities with the lowest recycling rates, many have densely populated urban areas, which pose a significant challenge to effective recycling.

England is also facing the danger that it won’t achieve its EU 2020 recycling target of 50 per cent. However, despite this, the government has withdrawn funding and focus from sustainable resource use, placing its future in the hands of the waste management industry.

Keep Britain Tidy is looking for new and innovative ways to boost recycling rates in England’s cities by asking members of the public to come up with real-world solutions with the help of waste industry experts.

Volunteers from London and Manchester, none of whom have any prior knowledge of the waste and recycling industry, are working alongside industry experts to find practical ways to encourage people to recycle more.

The solutions devised by these groups will then be tested by a wider independent public poll of more than 1,000 people, and the outcomes of both studies will be presented in a report and short film in June.

Keep Britain Tidy’s campaigns and communications director Andy Walker says: “Tackling waste is something in which the public has a big role to play, but all too often debates about recycling do not include ordinary people.

“These sessions are an opportunity for the man, or woman, on the street to have their say on an important issue that affects us all.”

For more information about SITA UK and its services, visit

Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director, SITA UK, is responsible for technical and policy innovation, and has worked in the recycling and waste industry for almost 30 years.