UK is Wasting £700 Million on 'Waste'

17.01.2013 -

Industry and business in the UK may be rejecting valuable raw materials worth £700 million by failing to capitalise on the potential of recycled materials.

Experts say that UK companies must adopt a novel approach to the way in which waste materials are handled by switching to a "closed-loop economy", where products currently being discarded are constantly reused, eliminating virtually all waste.

Andrew Furlong, Director of Policy at the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) says that low levels of recycling represent a missed opportunity in an era where the prices of many primary materials are becoming more volatile. "Although recycling rates have quadrupled in England over the last decade, we are a long way from achieving a zero waste economy and a change of mindset is called for. UK business, with the support of policymakers, needs to start thinking in terms of a "closed loop" economy in order to make most effective use of scare raw materials. A closed loop economy offers a triple win through raw materials security, new jobs and a reduction in CO2 emissions," says Furlong.

Current UK recycling schemes can be broken down into six stages: collection and deposit of household waste, sorting and baling, sale of sorted materials, reprocessing, sale of secondary materials and manufacturing. But a new report published in Westminster this week suggests that these methods fail to exploit the full potential of secondary materials.

In a closed-loop economy, materials are classed as biological or non-biological. Non-biological materials, such as plastics and metals, circulate through the economy continually in various products and are never discarded as waste. Biological materials can also be recovered and used again and where further usage is not possible, materials are converted into compost.

"UK business has been slow to implement this thinking, but it's one that has real potential and there are some excellent examples of where it's been made to work. It's about thinking about manufacturing in a continuous loop, rather than a start and end process, and it involves a radically different approach to product design. We have to start thinking about waste as a fundamental design flaw." adds Furlong.

The Dutch floor covering manufacturer Desso changed its business model in 2008. Today the company only designs products that are 100% biodegradable or that can be entirely recycled into new products. By 2020 Desso's CEO is committed to operating a fully closed loop company dramatically reducing its dependence on raw materials with a huge competitive advantage.

The challenges and opportunities presented by the closed loop economy are summarised in Maximising the Value of Recycled Materials, a new report for the UK parliament, prepared with IChemE support.