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Circular Economy Remains a Mystery to Many European Businesses

Despite a number of government initiatives and incentives, many companies throughout Europe remain entirely unfamiliar with the aims of the circular economy, while still persisting in using a number of outdated recycling practices.

Photo: Bio-bean: Saving the world one cappuccino at a time.
Bio-bean: Saving the world one cappuccino at a time.
Photo: Bio-bean: Saving the world one cappuccino at a time.
Bio-bean: Saving the world one cappuccino at a time.

The opportunities and problems of the "circular economy" – an industrial economy designed to produce neither waste nor pollution – were high on the agenda at RWM (Resource Efficiency and Waste Management Solutions), the UK's and Europe's premier recycling and waste management event. While some innovative new businesses are embracing the concept, with several studies identifying considerable economic and environmental benefits in the offing, the vast majority of companies have yet to fully embrace basic environmentally sound practices. Fewer still, it seems, have begun to adopt the more comprehensive, end-to-end approach advocated by many circular economy proponents.

In an RWM panel debate, RWM Chair, Barry Dennis, stated that many industries still hadn't heard of the circular economy, let alone begun to adopt its principles. With this in mind, the Circular Economy Connect Zone at the event focussed on changing attitudes to raw materials and resources, while prompting discussion as to how the waste management, recycling, water, and energy industries could embrace the concept of the circular economy.

In his keynote speech, Karl Falkenberg, Environment Director General of the European Commission sought to sum up the challenge facing businesses, by simply saying: "Waste is out." He also emphasised the need to keep materials in the loop through robust design and a commitment to re-use.

First proposed in the 1970s, the circular economy was seen as a possible solution to the problem of diminishing resources. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, UK-based charity founded to promote the concept, describes the circular economy as "one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles".

Judging by the 700 brands at this year's RWM, many exhibitors still appear locked in to traditional recycling patterns. This is despite advocates of the circular economy maintaining that merely replacing primary materials with secondary materials isn't sustainable.

While not as damaging as the 'take, make and dispose' system, many recycling processes are typically energy intensive and eventually downgrade materials. This leads to a continuing need for primary materials, such as oil, coal, animal products and wood, in order to replenish the cycle.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that the effects of moving toward a circular economy in Europe could result in around €1.8 trillion total savings. While the China Association of Circular Economy (CACE), predicts that the industry's outputs will grow to Rmb1.8 trillion by 2015 from Rmb1 trillion in 2010. At the international level, McKinsey & Company, a New York headquartered management consultant, estimates that the circular economy could be boosting the global economy by as much as US$1 trillion per annum by 2025.

Despite a degree of optimism in the sector, Dennis posed a number of tough questions to a panel of experts assembled for the event. The panel addressed the claim that the sector's reputation is not fantastic, referring to a number of continuing problems, such as fly tipping and other poor waste management issues, including unsatisfactory environmental solutions to waste management in general. The London-based Environmental Services Association Education Trust reports that illegal waste sites, fly-tipping and tax evasion cost the UK in excess of £100 million a year, while estimating the total cost of poor management in the sector as in excess of £600 million.

Taking this on the chin, the panel agreed that tackling waste crime is under-resourced, with government agencies lacking teeth. Dr Stephen Wise, Principal Consultant – Resource Efficiency and Waste Management for UK-headquartered Ricardo AEA said: "Such problems aren't being dealt with in a seriously enough manner. The industry bears some responsibility, while the sector has been poor in naming and shaming failing environmental performers."

Product design was also identified as another problem. Highlighting this particular issue, Gev Edulee, External Affairs Director of Suez Recycling and Recovery UK, said: "Many designers and manufacturers are sceptical when it comes to designing products with recycling and recovery in mind. Re-use doesn't improve their bottom line and could result in new products not being bought."

Photo: The netBin: Rubbish reclaimed.
The netBin: Rubbish reclaimed.
Photo: The netBin: Rubbish reclaimed.
The netBin: Rubbish reclaimed.
Photo: Tyrannosaurus shredding from BMH.
Tyrannosaurus shredding from BMH.
Photo: Tyrannosaurus shredding from BMH.
Tyrannosaurus shredding from BMH.

Another difficult question relating to the circular economy centred around the future of leasing, particularly in light of the lingering negative connotations associated with renting TV sets and other electrical appliances. The panel recognized that the cost of an item might be cheap at the point-of-purchase, but there is an increasing environmental cost, with the world's shrinking resources likely to force a move toward the leasing of some products.

The session also shared a number of success stories, including the growth of London-based Bio-bean. Every year, the company harvests and reprocesses the UK capital's 200,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds, a problem that would ordinarily cost coffee producers around £50 million in land fill fees, with such a disposal option also releasing a considerable amount of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Instead, the company collects spent coffee grounds and recycles them into bio-fuels, with its bio-diesel claimed to produce energy with 0% waste. Arthur Kay, the Founder of the business, said: "Even the glycerine by-product from the solvent used in the process is sold on to pharmaceutical companies. There is no such thing as waste, simply resources in the wrong place."

A similarly upbeat message came courtesy of Chris Holmes, Managing Director of Waste and Bioenergy at the London-based Green Investment Bank (GIB). GIB is a 'for profit' bank that was created and funded by the UK government in 2012, with a brief to accelerate the UK's transition to a greener economy.

To date, the bank has backed a number of 'gasification' projects, such as a new £64 million green household waste-driven power plant in Derby in northern England. The project, the first of its type in the UK, is expected to recycle over 35,000 tonnes of waste per annum, while annually diverting 170 kilotons from landfill. Set to be commissioned in 2017, the project will generate 12 MW and power 14,000 local homes.

David Longden, Business Development Director at Valmet, a Helsinki-based global developer and supplier of technologies for the pulp, paper and energy industry, also spoke about gasification, a process that converts organic or fossil fuel material into gases by reacting the material at a high temperature. Backed by an EU circular economy initiative aimed at reducing recyclable and biodegradable waste incineration levels by 2020, gasification is on course for greater acceptance.

In the Circular Economy Connect area, Ina Budde, a fashion designer from Berlin, delivered her own passionate keynote presentation, one that was highly critical of the current fashion sector. She said: "Fashion is not able to hold its value forever. Fashion ignores resource scarcity – pushing to increase consumption without providing solutions." Budde's own solution has been to create an Extended Closed Loop Model, a system that utilises a closed-loop material flow through innovative design, with re-use and recycling always at the forefront.

Budde was selected as one of the key participants in LAUNCH Nordic 2014, a program aiming to 'transform the systems of textiles, fabrics and fibres to one that has minimal environmental impact and drives social equality'. Highlighting her own approach, she said: "We have a unique design tool that is based on a materials library and this empowers designers to make the right choices. The consumer has the power to change the process with their buying decisions".

This digital tool allows consumers to scan a fashion item's label in order to access a product specific website that gives material and production information. Budde said: "The tool also provides information as to how to engage with the item's recycling process – thereby using the materials to their full capacity."

Finland's BMH Technology was in town to promote its range of Tyrannosaurus' shredders and separators. Its complete system for producing Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) using Tyrannosaurus receives, shreds and separates the waste, then stores and feeds the SRF at the right doses for the optimum performance of cement kilns.

Overall, several other initiatives from a number of international companies also attracted the attention of many delegates. Tokyo-headquartered Mitsubishi Electric, for instance, had on offer its Distribution Control Systems (DCS), technology that helps control the energy from waste (EfW) plants serving some 3.5 million people across Europe.

Louis Meyer, Director of Process Industries at Mitsubishi Electric's Factory Automation-European Business Group said: "This helps to avoid 1.4 million tonnes of waste ending up in landfill each year. Some 50 million litres of heating oil a year can also be saved by using energy from the EfW plant to heat buildings."

FarSite Communications, meanwhile, was at this year's RWM with its netBin, which uses IoT (internet of things) technology to improve waste bin efficiency. Sensors report fill levels, temperatures and location in real time allowing for the cleaner and cheaper operation and management of litterbin stock.

UK and China based FarSite had recently installed its bin-monitoring system in more than 10,000 litterbins as part of a multi-year SE Asian contract. Since the RWM show, FarSite has secured a deal in Melbourne with EYEfi Smart Sensors, expanding its portfolio with netBin technology. Steve Scott, Sales and Marketing Director for the company said: "The netBin system will significantly reduce bin overflow on Melbourne's city centre streets."

Photo: RWM: An expo looking to save the planet.
RWM: An expo looking to save the planet.
Photo: RWM: An expo looking to save the planet.
RWM: An expo looking to save the planet.

RWM was held at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), Birmingham, UK from 15-17 September. Some 13,000 visitors and 700 exhibitors were in attendance, across six show sectors. The event included some 70 seminars and ran concurrently with three other green events – The Energy Event, The Renewables Event and The Water Event.

Steve Daniels, Special Correspondent, Birmingham

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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