Time for change

The waste and business sectors need to work together in new ways if they want to exploit the commercial opportunities within the “circular economy”, says Paul Cox, managing director of Reconomy

With a number of notable exceptions, the vast majority of global production is deeply unsustainable. It’s a “take-make-dispose” linear system that generates staggering amounts of waste and causes substantial environmental damage.

Increasingly, businesses are looking at alternatives, one of which is the “circular economy”. This takes its inspiration from nature – that human systems should work like organisms, processing biological and technical inputs, which can be fed back into the process, and reused again and again. Zero waste is a key component of this process.

It’s not just a theory. There are businesses out there applying circular economy principles, but they tend to be large corporates rather than smaller companies. If closed loop is achievable, why is it not more widespread throughout the business community?

Part of the problem is the fragmented nature of the waste sector. This makes it hard for companies to offer national solutions to the largest waste producing sectors in the UK, including construction, which comprises more than 70 per cent of Reconomy’s core business.

Increasingly, businesses are looking at alternatives, one of which is the ‘circular economy’

Progress towards circular economy business models is happening, but a more collaborative approach between partners is required to make it more commonplace.

There is a lack of understanding, skills and knowledge of how companies can work together to achieve this aim. Businesses can overcome this by outsourcing their recycling and waste operations to a national provider which uses local supply networks. This reduces companies’ operational burden, allowing them to focus on waste reduction, re-use and minimisation strategies.

Reconomy’s collaborative approach enables us to come up with innovative ways to work with clients. As part of our recent partnership with Travelodge, to date we have collected about 1,500 unwanted beds from the hotel chain and refurbished half of them for use by charities, such as British Heart Foundation. Not zero waste, but a step in the right direction.

Zero waste was, however, a condition of Reconomy’s waste management work at the Olympic Aquatic Centre. We sent all waste that couldn’t be recycled to Northumberland Wharf, east London, from where it was transported by barge along the Thames to a refuse-derived fuel facility. The constraints of the Olympic Park site and limited waste transport options meant we had to come up with a creative solution.

Infrastructure challenges aside, the business case for the circular economy is clear – low or no waste means lower landfill costs. But judging by the few examples out there, this doesn’t seem to be enough of a driver. In the end, it’s the responsibility of both clients and the waste sector to come up with innovative ways to reduce waste.

To move towards a circular economy, organisations need to break away from the traditional ways of doing things and explore new cross-sector partnerships with different clients.

Waste operators should be providing solutions for companies that bridge the skills and knowledge gap within the sector, and by working together, aim to reduce waste as much as possible.

If this happens, it’s likely that companies such as Reconomy will become the rule rather than, as they are now, the exception. Until then, we and others are moving into prime position to take advantage of the many business opportunities afforded by what we hope will be the growing take-up of circular economy principles.