Powering recycling in the circular economy

Ever since I entered the environmental services sector around 18 years ago, I've been devoted to helping businesses cut waste, recycle more and save money.

By Lee Petts, managing director, Remsol.

In 2002, when I launched Remsol, I did so with the intent of encouraging businesses to think of leftovers and unwanted materials less as waste and more as resources with a continuing value. In fact, the name Remsol is a contraction of Resource Management Solutions.

Today, much of what I've been practising for the last 13 years is increasingly called 'circular economy' thinking.

The last few years in particular have seen the notion of moving from a linear 'take-make-use-discard' economy to a more circular model really start to take shape.

Widely respected bodies that include the Green Alliance, the Environmental Services Association, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), and the Ellen McArthur Foundation have all been talking-up the economic and environmental advantages.

And the advantages are very clear: increased employment, more economic prosperity, less waste, lower overall energy consumption, fewer emissions, and improved resilience.

Lots of thought is being given to how we design products and services to avoid obsolescence and waste, whilst improving the in-built capability for remanufacture and recycling.

But I think we're overlooking something: and that's the question of energy and how we will power a circular economy that seeks to recycle more waste.

Even the recently launched European Commission circular economy package doesn't discuss it.

Is current policy leading us into cul-de-sac?

Right now, British energy policy is heavily geared towards decarbonisation and the growth of renewable energy technologies like wind, wave and solar, in recognition of the role that carbon emissions play in climate change. The Climate Change Act commits us to reducing CO2 emissions, and the 20-20-20 package sets a legal obligation for the UK to derive 20% of it's energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Given that a significant goal of the circular economy model is to limit our use of finite world resources, it would seem sensible to apply this same logic and attempt to power it entirely with renewables like wind, wave and solar. In fact, at the Ellen McArthur Foundation that promotes circular economy thinking, this is a stated aim.

But it seems unlikely that it can be achieved in the UK - at least not any time soon - for three principle reasons:

Firstly, because demand and supply are often mismatched - sometimes called 'wrong time energy'. Steel recycling is a good example of what I mean. Scrap is mostly melted in electric arc furnaces using short, but intense bursts of concentrated electricity. Demand isn't constant, but arises in peaks. Renewables like wind, wave and solar aren't able to react to sudden fluctuations in demand like this: it's impossible to make the wind blow harder, or the sun shine brighter, just at the point when energy users are calling for more electricity.

Secondly, because they only supply electricity. Glass, that we recycle a lot of, is melted in furnaces that are powered directly by natural gas. Collectively, the UK fleet of melting furnaces appear to use over a million cubic metres of gas a day. Gas is also used in some steel production activities linked to recycling. Wind, wave and solar renewables obviously can't satisfy this demand.

And, thirdly, intermittency. The natural resources that are exploited by wind, wave and solar renewables can be unpredictable, in fact, sometimes absent altogether (solar panels produce no electricity at night, for example) and so power output can vary considerably, hour-by-hour, day-to-day. But the factories reprocessing society's waste, on the other hand, need reliable and affordable supplies of energy 24/7, 365 days a year.

No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem to power the circular economy with fossil fuels, we need to be realistic about what we can achieve without them, at least in the short term.

If we're not careful, current UK energy policy could lead the circular economy into something of a cul-de-sac.

And it wouldn't be the first time.

Unintended consequences

When the EU Waste Incineration Directive 2000 was implemented, companies that accepted animal byproducts for processing - everything from off specification meat pies to animal carcasses - were suddenly faced with a problem. Previously, they were allowed to burn some of the tallow they recovered to power the boilers used in their processes, but the new rules treated tallow as waste and meant operators needed additional permits and to retrofit expensive emissions controls. In effect, they were seen to be operating an incineration process.

Avoiding these costs and regulatory requirements was easy: switch back to burning much more polluting Heavy Fuel Oil instead which, because it was classified as a product and not a waste, was not subject to the same controls.

Which just goes to show how well-meaning policy can sometimes have unintended and undesirable consequences.

What we really need in the UK is an energy policy that recognises the continuing importance of fossil fuels in recycling and for reliable supplies of electricity when it's needed, not just when intermittent renewables can supply it.

Fuelling the future

As North Sea reserves of natural gas continue to decline, and imports rise (the UK became a net importer of gas in 2004) it seems that domestically-produced shale gas could play a part in meeting the future gas demands of the recycling industry, provided it can be extracted safely, responsibly and with adequate regulation. In fact, it's exactly this sort of industrial demand that makes shale gas such an appealing prospect.

Gas harvested from landfill sites and anaerobic digesters as organic waste biodegrades, and that is typically used to generate electricity, could instead be injected directly into the gas network and used to power our glass and steel recycling facilities too, although there are significant technical and cost obstacles that would need to be negotiated first.

There's a very clear benefit to the UK of extracting the energy content of Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) - produced from leftover waste that can't be recycled - rather than exporting it to other European countries at great cost (£43 million a year in the UK and Ireland according to one estimate).

And, to support further deployment of renewables, we need to see greater investment in gas and electricity storage to help overcome the issue of intermittency.

Why the energy question is so vital

If UK energy policy doesn't sufficiently recognise the needs of our energy-intensive recycling sectors, there's a real risk we might see an exodus of capacity and jobs abroad, as reprocessors seek affordable supplies of reliable energy in countries like China.

For instance, in the last five years, we've seen two of the UK's three major primary aluminium smelting factories in Anglesey and Lynemouth shut-down for good, with the owners blaming rising energy costs linked to energy policy. Our primary aluminium production capacity has declined by 323,000 tonnes a year as a result, and up to 915 direct jobs were lost, along with thousands more indirectly in the supply chain.

We want to avoid a repeat amongst the UK companies reprocessing paper and board, glass, aluminium, steel and plastic, upon which many other sectors of the economy rely for the supply of secondary raw materials at competitive prices.

Lancashire, especially, hosts a booming recycling sector, with dozens of companies involved in the collection and preparation of wastes for reprocessing, and a paper mill in Ramsbottom.

At the national level, the emerging circular economy already supports tens of thousands of jobs in the UK, generates millions in revenue, and contributes millions more to the economy in GVA whilst improving overall resilience and insulating us from price-shocks linked to primary resource scarcity. It would be a great shame to see our existing recycling achievements, and future recycling growth, undermined by a policy mismatch.