The UK generates 200 million tonnes of waste ever year with almost a quarter of that going to landfill, whilst many of the resources needed for critical applications such as power generation, communications and medical equipment are becoming more scarce.
In addition, most of us have come across the scenario where it’s cheaper to buy a new printer, washing machine, phone, etc than it is to repair or upgrade it. Why should this be the case?
One solution to tackle this excess waste and obsolescence is to move to a circular economy where products are designed:
- To last longer
- To be upgraded, repaired and re-used
- To enable easy recovery and recycling of constituent materials they contain at the end of the product’s life
The potential economic benefits to Wales of operating a circular economy have been estimated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to be £2bn annually, for the two sectors of: medium-lived complex goods, e.g. automobile, electronic equipment and machinery; and fast moving consumer goods, e.g. food and beverages, clothing and personal care.
Moving towards a circular economy requires a multi-disciplinary approach, encompassing research and innovation into areas such as: designing products for refurbishment and re-use; developing new materials and extracting useful resources from natural materials; developing new business models that incentivise the manufacturer to design a product for longevity; and investigating how can we communicate the opportunities and challenge perceptions of circular economy.
Only by combining expertise across a wide range of disciplines can we truly tackle the systems change needed to make the circular economy a reality.
We have a lot of this expertise in Welsh universities and by working together we can address circular economy challenges. I therefore worked with with colleagues in the Higher Education for Future Generations Group, Wales, the Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) Wales, the Welsh Government and Swansea University to set up the Circular Economy Research and Innovation Group for Wales.
The proposed aim of the group is to connect complementary expertise and experiences to facilitate circular economy innovation and research in Wales, achieved through the following objectives:
- Provide a forum to share good practice and facilitate knowledge exchange between academia, business and policy makers.
- Through collaboration, increase circular economy research capacity in Welsh institutions.
- Engage with industry to develop industry led research.
- Provide evidence to inform Government policy and programmes.
- Develop an online forum to facilitate exchange of good practice, funding opportunities, news and events.
- Showcase the network’s circular economy outputs internationally, thus supporting the development of international partnerships.
- Collaborate on curriculum development and training.
- Work with the Global Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) network (acknowledged by the United Nations University) to share learning and good practice at regional, national and international levels.
I chaired the inaugural meeting of the group on the 8th June, where we had representatives from: Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, South Wales, Swansea, and Trinity Saint David universities. Dr Andy Rees, Head of Waste, Welsh Government, set the scene providing some useful statistics and outlining Welsh Government policy instruments for innovation in the circular economy.
It was a productive meeting, where we discussed ideas on how we could collaborate on research, teaching, knowledge transfer and informing government policy. When it came to research it was thought that that we shouldn’t just focus on circular economy specific calls for research funding – there are opportunities for circular economy to add novelty to a wide range of research areas. It was also highlighted that we need to look at how we improve communication of the circular economy to industry and public in order to encourage innovation and change. In particular, linking to competitiveness when communicating with industry is important, as well as focusing on sectors important to the Welsh economy. The British Standard for Circular Economy, BS-8001, could provide a useful lever to engage with companies and existing academia-industry networks such as ASTUTE can provide an established route for knowledge transfer.
A core aim of the group is to encourage collaboration; this will initially be facilitated by providing a directory of expertise, so members can easily identify potential collaborators for research. In addition, we will also set up a regular email bulletin and a forum for members to discuss areas of interest. To keep a group such as this working needs good secretariat support, which Ann Stevenson from Cardiff University, has kindly offered to provide.
Moving forward, we will hold another meeting of the group in the autumn and will run sessions at the RCE Cymru Conference on the 8th November 2018, in Cardiff, where we hope to have some inspirational and productive discussions.
If you are interested in being part of the Group, or would like to find out more please contact Dr Gavin Bunting on firstname.lastname@example.org, 01792 602802.
About the Author
Dr Gavin Bunting is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Innovation and Engagement in the College of Engineering, Swansea University. Gavin teaches circular economy, life cycle analysis, environmental legislation and sustainability at masters and doctoral level, drawing on his experiences working with government on sustainability and climate change issues. His research interests include quantification of environmental impacts of circular economy opportunities.