Triangulating our way to a circular economy

Peter Maddox, Director, WRAP UK

Defra’s Waste Prevention Programme Review was published last week. It provides a summary of waste prevention activity in England from 2013-19, listing a vast array of programmes and their impacts. The review, covering food, clothing and electricals, suggests nearly 400,000 tonnes of waste have been prevented in total since 2013 as a result of actions taken by organisations collaborating with the Government. Not surprisingly, WRAP programmes feature heavily.

Food and packaging account for the vast majority of this waste prevented, with the Courtauld Commitment encouraging and supporting significant action to prevent food and packaging waste in both the grocery retail sector and food manufacturing supply chain. At the time the Review was conducted, signatories to the Courtauld 2025 agreement were projected to prevent a further 2.7 million tonnes of waste between 2015 and 2019. Our subsequent progress report to 2018 shows we are on track to achieve this.    

Of course, major challenges remain. The review notes that while water and carbon reduction targets in the clothing industry have been met or exceeded by signatories to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, the goal to reduce waste across the clothing supply chain has proven more challenging, with only a 1.4% reduction recorded between 2012 and 2018, against a target reduction of 3.5% per tonne of clothing by the end of 2020.

The purpose of this blog, however, is not to draw highlights from the Review, but to reflect that, with its focus on waste prevention, it takes me back to our old friend, the waste hierarchy. I am sure many of us in the resources and waste industry visualise this as that simple inverted triangle illustrating a clear hierarchy of how the various methods of waste management impact the environment. The hierarchy gives a broad indication of relative environmental impact, based on a life cycle thinking approach, and averaged across such issues as use of resources, carbon emissions, and pollution of the air, water and land  It elegantly sets out the fundamentals of good waste management, with prevention at the top (the most preferable option), then reuse, recycling in the middle, and then recovery (e.g. through energy from waste) and disposal (e.g. landfill) at the bottom (least preferable). On one hand, it is an excellent guide and ‘framework for thinking’ about waste. On the other hand, it is important to recognise that the hierarchy is legally binding in both EU and UK law. Departures from it need to be justified by evidence.

The Waste Hierarchy has been around in one form or another since the late 1970s, but became legally binding in the EU back in 2008 through revisions to the Waste Framework Directive. Today, however, the main framework for thinking around waste and resources is the Circular Economy. Not only has it become mainstream with major businesses and consultants, but governments are putting it at the heart of their policy making – witness the Circular Economy Package (CEP) also published last week, which transposes much of the EU CEP into UK law, and Defra’s Resources & Waste Strategy of December 2018.

Of course, practitioners understand that the Waste Hierarchy and Circular Economy are intimately linked. I don’t know a circular economy model that does not include re-use and recycling (as well as remanufacturing, re-purposing and repair). And preventing waste as resources move around a circular economy is all part of using these resources more efficiently. So the top of the waste hierarchy is all about circularity.

What about recovery and disposal? These are, at heart, part of the linear – make, use, dispose – economy. Yes, incinerator bottom ash is recovered and down-cycled for the construction industry and in some case, metals are recovered from the ash. But these waste management routes are not fundamentally circular.

So as we aspire to move to a circular economy, keeping the planet’s precious resources in use and treating them with care, I think we must accept that waste recovery and disposal are both transitional technologies that can bridge the gap to a much lower waste society. 

The Waste Prevention Programme Review casts a welcome light on the many activities that have taken place on the top step of the waste hierarchy across England over recent years. As we move to a circular economy, we need to keep pushing waste up to the top half of that hierarchy and, ultimately, prevent it from arising in the first place. It’s a journey that WRAP’s been on for some time, as the Review makes clear. But there’s a lot more to do in the years to come. We’re ready.